Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies

“At TEDxRainier, Patricia Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and “taking statistics” on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world.”

I am not sure if I am completely in agreement with this talk – especially the point about how adults can not learn new languages fluently – basically this video builds up under the view that it is impossible to learn new languages as an adult. However, I have met several people who have become incredibly good at new languages they started to learn as adults. Especially people who learn English – they become immersed in English, probably because English influence is all around them, and they end up sounding next to native (at least to my ears).

At the same time I am thinking about the Norwegian language, I have not yet met a single person who came to Norway when they were older than maybe 12 – 14 years old who sound completely Norwegian. Their grammar and vocabulary might be fabulous and flawless, but you can still hear that there is this slight something (accent? naturalness?) which gives them away. Somebody prove me wrong here, please. I would really love to be wrong about this.

I am assuming that Paticia Kuhl is talking about true multilingualism in her talk above, and not the ability to make yourself understood in another language (using great grammar and vocabulary). She is saying that it is only infants up to age 10 months who can truly learn to distinguish different sounds from different languages. At the same time, after just spending a year in Japan – my Japanese is far from good, it is not even decent – but I can hear a much clearer difference between different Japanese sounds than what I did when I first moved to Japan. On that note, I know quite a few Japanese people that have made a huge improvement and can actually distinguish between English r and l, even if they did not learn this as an infant.

All in all, I thought this talk had some interesting points, but I get a bit sad thinking that I am basically in the middle of mission impossible here, trying to learn Japanese. That being said, my goal is not multilingualism, my goal is to have a decent conversation in Japanese and be able to express my option without having to directly translate every word in my head. And I think this is possible for most adults, and maybe we have to leave the perfect sounds up to the infants who can not utter a single word yet.

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  1. Gitte says:

    Jeg synes det er fascinerende å se hvordan babyer og barn tilegner seg språkkunnskaper, det er så utrolig hvor mye som skjer over kort tid, men samtidig synes jeg ikke det kan brukes som argument for at det ikke går an å lære seg språk som voksen. Det krever helt klart mer arbeid, men å kalle det umulig virker feil. Men jeg har samme erfaring; tilflyttere som har kommet til Norge i voksen alder snakker forståelig og grammatisk riktig norsk, men språklyden er det vanskeligere med.

    • Sushi Bird says:

      Jeg lurer på hvorfor. Jeg liker å tro at engelsken min har ok uttale, men jeg kan ikke høre om japansken min høres helt merkelig ut eller ikke, jeg har liksom ikke nok sammenlikningsgrunnlag.