Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl (UW, I-LABS) recently spoke to the UF Language and Brain Interest Group. Her talk, entitled, “Early Language Development: Social Interaction, Sensorimotor Learning, and the Child’s Developing Brain,” can be viewed here.
Some of the most revolutionary ideas in brain science are coming from the study of young children. I will focus on new discoveries related to infants’ early learning and the neural coding in the baby brain that occurs as infants interact with the world and with their caregivers, with special attention to language. Infants are born with innate abilities that make them “citizens of the world,” and can acquire any language easily. However, by the end of the first year of life, infants show a perceptual narrowing of their language skills—their ability to discern differences in the sounds that make up words in the world’s languages shrinks, as infants’ brains become specialized in the language(s) spoken by adults in their communities. This developmental transition is caused by two interacting factors: the child’s computational skills and their “social” brains. Infants’ computational skills allow rapid learning of statistical regularities in adult speech, and social interaction appears to “gate” this computational learning process in infants. Neuroimaging using Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is helping us explain why the infant brain shows “neuroplasticity,” while the adult brain exhibits greater expertise but is less “open” for new learning than the mind of the child. Brain science is advancing our understanding of the “critical period” for language in early development. Modern neuroscience may reveal the mysteries and mechanisms of the interaction between biology and culture in human learning over the lifespan, not only for language but for other cognitive and social skills.