A Summary of Patricia Kuhl’s Work:

Patricia Kuhl is co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.  Her ongoing work, which began in the 1970’s, has altered how modern language theorists view the predisposition to language learning that infants are born with.  Prior to her work most followed the Piagetian view that babies were social isolates not yet ready to learn.  Kuhl’s research has changed this prevailing perception in a number of ways: 

  • Human infants, as well as the young of other species such as birds, monkeys, and chinchillas, are born with an ability to distinguish between all sounds that exist in the particular language of that species.
  • Human infants lose the ability to distinguish between sounds not in their language at about the same time that they begin producing varied babbling.  Humans have evidently evolved a predisposition toward learning a specific language.
  • Parents have evolved specific techniques for teaching language – most prominantly is the high pitched, simplified version of language called “motherese.”  Kuhl’s research has shown a strong positive correlation between a child’s early language acquisition and the amount of “motherese” heard (or “parentese” as Kuhl diplomatically has called it).
  • Interaction is crucial.  Babies that are not interacting as much do not learn language nearly as effectively, even if they appear to be attending to caregivers.
  • The explosion in language learning that takes place between six months and three years of age in typically developing children seems to be the result of a combination of a child’s innate ability to detect sound differences, a seemingly innate ability to apply computational strategies to make language learning more efficient (Kuhl calls this statistical learning), and a nurturing social setting.

A recent summary of Kuhl’s research backed opinions can be found here.  A very interesting Seattle Times article on Kuhl and her work can be accessed here.

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