Language Development: It's All in the Eyes

Health & Wellness on 03.21.11
Contributor bio

I'm addicted to, the online emporium of mind-blowing talks that come out of Ted conferences. Recently I found out that I can stream these talks to my Roku player. That means that on a Friday night, after a week of running around with our little whirling dervish of a 2-year-old, instead of tuning into a "House Hunters" episode and realizing that my husband and I have seen it already (sad commentary on our lack of excitement these days), we can at least tune into some mind-stimulating entertainment.

Pair that with a glass of wine, Thai takeout and you've got something like a date night. OK, maybe not Date Night, but the bar is set kind of low these days (as evidenced by the real-estate-hunting shows). 

Also, I get some fodder for fighting the good fight when it comes to well-intentioned grandparents. But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Getting back on track:  

We recently watched talk, "The Linguistic Genius of Babies" presented by Patricia Kuhl (co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington). It's a short talk at 10 or so minutes, but it's completely riveting watching babies learn -- they really are linguistic geniuses. Plus, Kuhl is plucky and informative (a Ted hallmark, I've discovered).


Off the Map

Kuhl shows the audience a graph of language acquisition and how it correlates to age. Suffice to say that it's not going to surprise anyone to know that after age 39 the ability to cram your brain with, say, a second language gets a lot harder (not impossible, though).

The most jarring thing about the graph is that after age 7 we begin to, as Kuhl says, "fall off the linguistic map." So keep that stat in mind for a moment.

Now consider Kuhl's research: She exposed American babies to Mandarin during 12 one-on-one sessions with a native speaker. She and her researchers found out that those babies were as good at language acquisition as babies in Taiwan who had been exposed to it for 10 months.

Then Kuhl arranged for another group of babies to be exposed to the same amount and intensity of Mandarin, though this time through audio only. No learning occurred. They tried again, this time using a video. Again, no learning occurred.

Turns out it takes a human being -- interaction -- to learn language. You've got to connect with someone to learn, meaning, it's all in the eyes, baby.


Harold and the Purple Crack

That may seem like a big duh, but consider all the money we spend on language enrichment videos (ahem, Baby Einstein) as either or a supplement or a replacement for learning, and consider that studies have corroborated that these types of edutainment don't make a difference in language acquisition.

Now think about that precarious stat: Kids fall off the language wagon by 7. So everything they take in by age 7 counts. What are kids learning from you, and what are they learning from TV?

Furthermore, babies, toddlers and kids suffer from watching too much TV. There's plenty of evidence out there to point that kids stuffed with a lot of TV tend to stuff their mouths more, live a sedentary lifestyle, perform worse in school and in their adult years claim to have "Adonis DNA and tiger's blood" (OK, made that one up.)

 So grandparents, next time you hear your daughter or son yammering on about how children should ideally watch no more than a half-hour of TV, one hour max, think about the tiger's blood! And feel free to point out that a certain daughter/daughter-in-law plies her kid with "Harold and the Purple Crayon" regularly and may need to make some verbal eye contact as well.

After all, I need reminding, too. And I could stand to lay off the boob tube myself. Then there's my own language development, or should I say bad language ...


Credit: John Howard/Getty Images

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