Why are babies sociolinguistic geniuses?

TedxBelgrade Salon “Words at work” to be held in February is dedicated to sociolinguistic topics, and the visitors will have the opportunity to hear interesting stories about the global phenomenon of the lexeme pizza, the influence of a popular cartoon on the development of gender identities in kids, wiping the cultural differences when translating American love novels into Serbian, as well as learning new languages in a space called classroom.

Upcoming event has reminded me of another, globally noted TedxRainer talk, given by University of Washington professor and member of the international team that studies language learning mechanisms, Patricia Kuhl, who presented inspiring results obtained during the laboratory experiments. 

She began her talk by showing an Indian mother who spoke Koro language to her baby, language spoken by only 800 people in the world. The mother tried to prevent the rapid extinction of the language by “conveying“ it to her six-month-old baby. Unlike children, adults can never learn a non-mother tongue perfectly, because the process of the language learning has its critical period. Babies can discern all the sounds of all the languages, no matter which country we are studying and which language we are using.



Every language uses special sounds, typical only for that language. Babies up to 8 months can adopt and distinguish sounds (from different languages). However, when they turn one year, this ability diminishes. By comparing two seven-month-old babies – one from Japan, the other  from USA, Patricia explained that a Japanese baby reacts excellently to sounds that don’t exist in her country or that sound differently (in particular English language). But, that only happens in this period of life, because couple of months later, things start to change. When they are eleven months old, babies ’’are doing language and sound statistics“ (accordingly, bilingual babies do two statisctics of this kind), losing the capability to react to sounds not found within “the statistics“ (namely the ones not found in their mother tongue). In this period, babies are getting close to so called “language-bound listeners“, such are adults. When a child masters the mother tongue, that interferes with learning new, less known languages. The brain ignores the sounds that don’t fit in the statistics.




Apart from previously mentioned experiments, Patricia was interested in finding out how the babies‘ brains react and what happens when they listen to sounds coming from the television. She concluded that babies do not react to sounds that are not coming from living people, therefore babies don’t adopt a language listening to the audio material. Also, Patricia showed (by using magnetoencephalography) that the magnetic fields are moving while baby is listenening to different languages, namely  the audio zones are activited on the device screen when the baby hears mother tongue words. 

All the revolutionary discoveries up to now are only an introduction to what teams of scientists plan to investigate in the near future. Let’s hope the science will advance enough to enable us to find out how the child’s brain reacts to different emotions, while learning to speak, read or solve a mathematical problem.


Author: Majstorović Vera

Translator: Jagoda Jovanovic