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Toddlers May Learn Language By Data Mining

kdawson posted more than 6 years ago | from the network-effects dept.

Education 213

Ponca City, We Love You writes "Toddlers' brains can effortlessly do what the most powerful computers with the most sophisticated software cannot: learn language simply by hearing it used. A ground-breaking new theory postulates that young children are able to learn large groups of words rapidly by data-mining. Researchers Linda Smith and Chen Yu attempted to teach 28 children, 12 to 14 months old, six words by showing them two objects at a time on a computer monitor while two pre-recorded words were read to them. No information was given regarding which word went with which image. After viewing various combinations of words and images, however, the children were surprisingly successful at figuring out which word went with which picture. Yu and Smith say it's possible that the more words tots hear, and the more information available for any individual word, the better their brains can begin simultaneously ruling out and putting together word-object pairings, thus learning what's what. Yu says if they can identify key factors involved in this form of learning and how it can be manipulated, they might be able to make learning languages easier for children and adults. Understanding children's learning mechanisms could also further machine learning."

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Interesting, but... (5, Informative)

gujo-odori (473191) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317382)

...I'm not quite sure it's going to change how we think about learning, as they state in TFA. I majored in linguistics, and even way back then, it was well understood by researchers in language acquisition that context played a significant role in both first and second language acquisition, but especially first. A form of data mining may well be part of the mechanics of what was happening in the experiment, but the whole way it was set up, and the way the subjects figured out what word went with what picture, had a lot to do with context. I don't mean to put down their research - this is really quite interesting - but it's also not quite the huge deal TFA seemst o suggest it is.

Re:Interesting, but... (5, Interesting)

linest (157204) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317442)

What they've done is taken the same old thing that wasn't clearly understood and put the label "data mining" on it. Now that it's been labeled, some will feel like we've got a better handle on it than we did before.

Interesting, but...does it come with handles? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22317776)

"Now that it's been labeled, some will feel like we've got a better handle on it than we did before."

What is it called when a man and a woman get together alone in a room and start joining their bodies in erotic and exciting positions?

Re:Interesting, but...does it come with handles? (3, Funny)

gujo-odori (473191) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317822)

Hmmm, let's call it, ummmm... I know! Data mining!

Re:Interesting, but...does it come with handles? (1) (793321) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318500)

In Soviet Russia, children were mining too!

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

ardle (523599) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318250)

Now that it's been labeled, some will feel like we've got a better handle on it than we did before.
And they'd [] be [] right [] ;-)

Re:Interesting, but... (1) (1195047) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318360)

I just kinda took the whole thing for a relabeling of the well-known fact that the human mind operates in a highly parallel manner, and is specifically tuned for pattern recognition. Could just be me...

Re:Interesting, but... (4, Interesting)

mrxak (727974) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317470)

Yeah, isn't it a lot of almost random trial-and-error, paying attention to non-verbal clues? Like, when a baby smiles, it gets a lot of attention. When a baby manages to put together something simple like ma-ma or da-da, suddenly there's happy parents all jumping up and down with excitement.

Re:Interesting, but... (4, Insightful)

jp25666 (620034) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317928)

That might be part of it, but that's definitely not the whole story. In particular, there are some language errors that babies simply do not make. Likewise, there is a general pattern that all babies follow when acquiring a language. These aspects of acquisition cannot be explained by positive reinforcement alone: they are a result of general cognition or the language faculty, or they are somehow an artifact of the human language learning algorithm.

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

emmadw (768195) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318516)

I've also read, though, that children quite often use verb forms that adults just don't - e.g. "runned"; and that this often comes after they've used "run" correctly - and the theory that I read was that children start to work out that to create the past tense you put "ed" on the end. Which, as we know, generally works. It's just they haven't worked out when it doesn't.

I'm not sure if that's all children, or just some of them. I've not got any, but do have a lot of nephews / nieces - and it seems that some do use "runned" and some don't seem to.

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

jp25666 (620034) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318662)

For irregular verbs, the general pattern of acquisition (which I have heard about) is three stages. First, children learn the irregular forms, e.g. "ran" as the past form of "run". Second, children learn that the "-ed" suffix means past tense, and so they form words like "runned" and "ranned". Finally, children recognize that some verbs use the general "-ed" suffix, and other verbs are irregular, and at this point their language is similar to the language of an adult in this respect.

Re:Interesting, but... (3, Interesting)

brown-eyed slug (913910) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318726)

Yes it's true that children will learn the rules and then apply them, sometimes inappropriately, until they learn the exceptions. I expect that your nieces/nephews who use "ran" have simply heard that word used more often in the right context and have therefore learned this particular irregularity.

My own son gave a classic example some time ago of a sentence showing he was part way through this learning process. I can't for the life of me remember what it was, which is very annoying, but he was using two irregular verbs, one correctly and one not. Along the lines of "The glass breaked when I ran over it"

The good news is that as language evolves, irregular verbs are gradually being "regularized". []

Re:Interesting, but... (5, Interesting)

rucs_hack (784150) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318082)

When a baby manages to put together something simple like ma-ma or da-da, suddenly there's happy parents all jumping up and down with excitement.

Actually, the first sound (aside from crying) that a baby is capable of forming is the sound 'ma', and subsequently 'ma-ma'. Unfortunately, all those mothers who believe their child is referring to them are mistaken, although the term rapidly becomes associated with mother anyway, so it gets to be true after a while.

It should be obvious really, how else would every child ever born (that could vocalise) select the same sound?

I'm less sure about da-da. I know 'da' is another sound that a child can form earlier, but that's all.

Re:Interesting, but... (5, Interesting)

gujo-odori (473191) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318178)

I give a little more weight to the "ma ma" = "baby is talking to mom" than that. The reason why is my first daughter's first word as an infant was the Vietnamese world for "dad" ( b). She didn't start using the word for "mother" (m ) until much later. Coincidence? Possibly, but she had the tone correct as well, not just the consonant+vowel sound, which is a stronger argument for actual speech rather than coincidence. Additionally, she would say it only when she saw me, not at other times.

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

gujo-odori (473191) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318186)

Oops, the encoding got mangled on the Vietnamese. Looked good before I hit submit, anyway :p

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

ArsenneLupin (766289) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318452)

I'm less sure about da-da. I know 'da' is another sound that a child can form earlier, but that's all.
Especially, since in most languages, it's papa, not dada.

Re:Interesting, but... (2, Informative)

sim60 (967365) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318872)

Actually, the first sound (aside from crying) that a baby is capable of forming is the sound 'ma', and subsequently 'ma-ma'. Unfortunately, all those mothers who believe their child is referring to them are mistaken, although the term rapidly becomes associated with mother anyway, so it gets to be true after a while.

It should be obvious really, how else would every child ever born (that could vocalise) select the same sound?

Babies make a lot of different sounds well before they say 'ma': squealing, giggling, 'aaaaah', 'oooo', 'oh', 'eh', etc.

The fist consonant-vowel sound my son made was 'boo', followed by 'baa', then 'waa'.

Most euro languages have the same root, and particularly fundamental words like mother change very little. Non-European languages have different sounds for 'mother', infant-speak analogues include 'mu(-mu)' and 'ha(-ha)', at least.

Re:Interesting, but... (4, Interesting)

potpie (706881) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318202)

It's actually very interesting how big a role context plays. If a child sees a ball under a table and hears adults referring to it as a ball, the child knows that it is a ball. However, the child cannot be sure exactly what makes it a ball. Does it have to be shiny? Does it have to be round? Does it have to be under a table? Does it have to be in the daytime? Does it have to be a certain color? Does it have to be positioned in a certain way? Does it need to be a certain size? Since the child does not have all this information, overextensions occur. For instance, a child may refer to a dog as a rug because he thinks "rug" means "something furry." Meaningful input is also a huge part of the acquisition mechanism, as you say, but it goes beyond emotional reaction. Actually, children are resistant to correction. If your child keeps making a mistake over and over again, instruction will not help, only time and hearing the correct usage enough. This goes along with the "Active Construction of a Grammar" model.

Re:Interesting, but... (3, Informative)

Hyperspite (980252) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318764)

This was first proposed by Skinner way back when in his operant conditioning theory. I'm sure that operant conditioning is part of it, but if IIRC, there are a bunch of experiments that show that isn't it. I'm too lazy to drag out my psych book.

Re:Interesting, but... (2, Insightful)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317548)

When my son was a couple of months old he started to use the word "poo" when we were changing his nappy. Of course, he heard that word a lot in that context. This article doesn't surprise me at all.

Eventually he abandoned that behaviour and later replaced it with a more sophisticated model. Presumably he had then collected enough data to get a better idea of how our language worked.

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

Meshugga (581651) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317560)

I second that. Interesting research, but it has almost nothing to do with what "language acquisition" is commonly referring to.

Re:Interesting, but... (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22317608)

True, this does have nothing to do with the acquisition of language. Individual words associated to objects isn't even a small portion of language. Language is grammar, putting words together coherently to express ideas. There's a big difference from just saying "water" to "I want water".

Buzz-words aside, this is common knowledge. Babies and toddlers can learn as astounding rates at that age. Just talk to them as you would normally and they'll be talking themselves sooner than you can expect. 18 months is practically the age where nearly everyone in my family, including myself, started talking with enough vocabulary to express ourselves and communicate. This is no new discovery.

There have already been studies showing that kids below age 8 or so can learn any number of languages just by simple exposure. That's how I became bilingual, when I moved to the US when I was 4. Why are we bothering to put new words onto things we already know?

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

ASimPerson (138798) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317590)

Yeah, seriously. I studied linguistics a bit in college and what seemed far more interesting to me is why when we reach a certain age it becomes significantly harder to acquire languages.

Re:Interesting, but... (4, Insightful)

TapeCutter (624760) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317742)

"what seemed far more interesting to me is why when we reach a certain age it becomes significantly harder to acquire languages"

Someone who is raised with a single language does not even hear certain sounds in other languages because their brain has long since rejected those sounds as irrelevant 'noise'. The same thing applies to vision, a baby sees every meercat face as different but adults don't (without a lot of practice).

A babies brain actually loses a lot of connectivity between neurons in the first year of life (not so much data minning as connection breaking/forming). In other words we are all programmed by our early environment to exclude irrelevant stimuli, hacking into that 'code' later in life can be extremely difficult.

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

saikou (211301) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318410)

I'd say it depends on the baby. Otherwise you wouldn't have people who speak foreign languages quite well (unless you define "a baby" as someone under 30 years old or so). Just because certain sounds are not used in the household doesn't mean baby won't be able to process them. Otherwise all republicans would never ever heard the word "sex" as that sound is simply not used in a proper right-wing household ;)

Re:Interesting, but... (2, Funny)

martinX (672498) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318790)

I have found the older we get, the less we care about acquiring other languages.

And get off my lawn you jabbering monkey!

100% PURE AFRICAN NIGGER (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22317664)

I majored in linguistics

Did you study EBONICS yo?

Re:100% PURE AFRICAN NIGGER (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22317856)


What's the difference between black pussy and a bowling ball? If you HAD to, you could eat the bowling ball.



Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22318120)

i won't comment on the tasteless joke, but ... nigger dicks? wtf??

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

sv0f (197289) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317700)

I'm not quite sure it's going to change how we think about learning, as they state in TFA

You're right. This is old wine in new bottles. Notice the source: a University of Indiana press release. One wonders how this bit of ho-hum research made its way to Slashdot...

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

Estanislao Martnez (203477) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318228)

I'm not quite sure it's going to change how we think about learning, as they state in TFA. I majored in linguistics, and even way back then, it was well understood by researchers in language acquisition that context played a significant role in both first and second language acquisition, but especially first.

You didn't spend a lot of time with Chomskians, right?

Re:Interesting, but... (1)

mwvdlee (775178) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318456)

The way this experiment was set up wouldn't be difficult for a computer to beat at all.
Sound quite deterministic to me.
You get two images (to a computer these would be like indexes into a database, assuming they used the identical image every time) and you get two pre-recorded words (again, identical every time, so just two indexes).
So, if we give assign images letter index and words numerical ones, we could get:
A, B and 1, 2
C, D and 3, 4
E, F and 5, 6
and then...
A, F and 2, 1
How difficult would it be for a computer to cross reference these and learn that image A = word 1 (and thus that B = 2)?

So atleast the claim that this would be the reason computers can't learn human language, is bull.

Re:Interesting, but... (2, Insightful)

Jurily (900488) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318786)

it was well understood by researchers in language acquisition that context played a significant role in both first and second language acquisition, but especially first.

It should even in the second. In fact, that's the primary and most effective mode of learning for the human brain. That's also why formal education sucks.

under feeling the (3, Funny)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317384)

cognizant factors laughing mainly if no can wormhole torsion mostly antibacterial softly

got that?

Re:under feeling the (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22318068)

You forgot to add the advert for Viagra or Cialis or OEM Software.

Re:under feeling the (1)

FeebleOldMan (1089749) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318102)


Oh god.... (0, Offtopic)

Obsi (912791) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317392)

New Adware Company Recruiting Poster: "Let us use your children, for fun (for them) and profit (for us)"

Interesting (5, Insightful)

chuckymonkey (1059244) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317408)

This is why I've never talked to either of my children in "baby talk". I've always talked to them like they're adults (minus swearing and things like that) and as a result my eldest talks like a six or seven year (she's two) and my youngest... well she's just a few months old but she knows mom and dad. It really is interesting to see the difference between the children that aren't expected to speak and those that are. My eldest has never gotten away with pointing and grunting for things, she always had to at least try to say what she wanted and we'll do the same for the baby when she's around the right age. What kills me though is that the eldest is starting to use sarcasm.... that just blows my mind when she does it. Children's minds are the most amazing things, when people say sponge that doesn't even begin to describe it. Given a lot of patience and a lot of work from the parents children can learn at incredible rates. I only wish that I knew more languages so that I could teach them at this young age so they'd be fluent, I'm really considering taking a job in Europe partially for that reason and cultural exposure for them.

Re:Interesting (5, Funny)

elloGov (1217998) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317516)

That's awesome man! I just learned "Da Da" two weeks ago and I am 20 something. I guess the time was just right.

Re:Interesting (2, Interesting)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317544)

Mine says "wa-wa" for water, and that's the way I likes it!

I also let her run around the park while her brethren are in various classes. I guess she'll never be president. I do wish I knew Spanish, though - that seems to be a more and more popular language these days in the US.

Re:Interesting (2, Funny)

peccary (161168) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317566)

Huh. That explains why my @#$%^& kid swears like a #$% sailor, too.

Re:Interesting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22318054)

Sure does, Bluto. ;) -Popeye

Re:Interesting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22317626)

While I agree with the parent in that we should talk to children in a normal fashion, we should not expect that they should think in an adult fashion as even some adults are not very good at that. The scene at the airport counter from Look Who's Talking Now illustrates this very well.

"Look at that, look at that, he is thinking the same thing I am."
"Yeah, DINNER!"
We also should avoid thinking we can read their minds, or them ours. Children have an innate desire to learn, let's be careful to not destroy that in even the slightest way while maintaining respect for themselves, others and the world.

Re:Interesting (5, Funny)

kongit (758125) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317662)

hmm when I somehow come by a kid I will only talk to him in C. Eventually I will start talking in C++ to him. And lastly I will recite perl poetry. After he has mastered these 3 things I will introduce him to shakespeare. hmm maybe I won't be such a good parent, but my kid will be able to hack your kid's computer.

Re:Interesting (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22317744)

I will start talking in C++ to him.

I'm pretty sure that qualifies as child abuse.

Re:Interesting (1)

PReDiToR (687141) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318280)

Did you miss the bit where GP said "perl poetry"?
Perl is just child abuse in a way that MicroSoft dream of!

If only schools would teach Vi instead of Emacs *sigh*

Mods: Jay Oh Kay Ee. (Retarded mods: JOKE, as in not flaimbait, more a comment on the MS structured environment presented by most educational establishments).
Silly me, ponies!!!!!!!1111111one!!!1


This post written whilst drunk!

Re:Interesting (2, Funny)

Run4yourlives (716310) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317838)

And lastly I will recite perl poetry.

It's child abusers like you that need to be locked up for a long time. :-)

Re:Interesting (2, Funny)

EnglishSteve (834757) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317984)

And lastly I will recite perl poetry

At least it's not Vogon Poetry...

Re:Interesting (1)

chuckymonkey (1059244) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318064)

Heh, funny enough I'm about to start teaching her some basics in computer usage and programming since she has taken an interest in what "Daddy's doing on the computer". There's a great little tool for linux called Little Wizard [] that parents such as myself can use for that, it's really cool.

Re:Interesting (1)

tsa (15680) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317850)

Hre in NL we would say that your kids are 'hoogbegaafd', which means they have an extremely high IQ and should be treated with extra care and sent to special schools just so they learn that they are very special and become obnoxious brats. I'm glad to see there is a different way of treating them. And sorry about the sarcasm. Dutch fads often get to me.

Re:Interesting (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317946)

Just goes to show you, the more you expect from children, the more they deliver. Our modern society's greatest crime is treating children like an idealized Alice-in-Wonderland stereotype of children.

I wouldn't advise teaching European languages - they'll be obsolete in a generation. Arabic would be a more worthwhile substitute, as it's spoken over a much larger area, and most European children will speak it in 20 years anyway.

Re:Interesting (4, Interesting)

xigxag (167441) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318016)

I don't know any of the science in this area, but since everywhere I've been in the world, across languages and cultures, parents seem to speak "baby talk" to their kids, I would guess that it has some purpose, evolutionarily speaking. I'm not saying you're doing anything wrong, I'm just saying don't be so sure it is a superior method. Also, I'd venture a guess that at some point, your little ones will more or less know English and that will be that. And eventually other kids will catch up to their level, and maybe surpass them.

My GF's nephew grew up in a Spanish-speaking household and was basically fluent at 4. But now, at age 13, he seems to have mostly forgotten it in favor of his dominant language, English. Same thing happened with a GF I had when I was much younger. Kids have a tremendous ability to learn things. But also to utterly forget them.

Re:Interesting (2, Insightful)

chuckymonkey (1059244) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318142)

You're very very correct in that. That's why I always take the time to explain things to her especially if she asks a question, most people make the mistake of thinking that children don't understand things and for some things that's true, for most though that is very wrong. For instance when I'm cooking I always let her be my little helper and explain the entire process while I do it, such as bread. I show her the measurements for everything and explain what they are, tell her about the different ingredients and what they do, even explaining that the yeast is a tiny little plant that eats the sugar I put in to make the dough grow big by releasing CO2. Everything can be a learning experience for a kid, you just have to try to make it that way and be very very patient.

Re:Interesting (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22318784)

You should probably tell her it's a fungi and not a plant. Shouldn't lie to your kids.

Re:Interesting (1)

StarfishOne (756076) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318344)

Thank you for your interesting post. I'll actually keep it in mind if I will ever have children myself.

I have had the plan for a long time to help them with foreign languages as well. Reading your paragraph about this makes me wonder right now if one cannot just turn on, say, a Japanese TV program for children or a simple audio book. You/we might not understand the language, but it might give your child a feeling/foundation for that language (or at least its sounds and pronunciation) which might really help later in life. A bit later one could then switch to a Pimsleur language programming or something like that. ;)

And starting with sarcasm at two years old... I bet she'll become a Slashdot poster with great karma later in life! ;P

Re:Interesting (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22318594)

What kills me though is that the eldest is starting to use sarcasm....

I can just see it...

Dad: The theory goes something like did you get all that
Daughter: Yeah sure thing Dad. What the fuck are you rabbiting on about you stupid old man? I'm fucking 2 for crying out loud. I can't wait until you piss off and I get to play blocks with mummy. She's not a dumbfuck nerd, but she says we have to put up with daddy for a couple of years so we can take him for every cent.

Re:Interesting (2, Informative)

SillyWilly (692755) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318794)

I find your comment interesting. When I studied Linguistics at uni a few years ago, there was a fair amount of evidence that "baby talk", or "motherese [] " as it is sometimes known, is extremely beneficial to a child's language acquisition (see section 2.1.1 of the Wikipedia page for an overview). Though I commend your parenting efforts, I would humbly submit that people who do use "baby talk" are not doing their children a disservice.

If only they could (1, Funny)

Mazin07 (999269) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317416)

Reverse-engineer the toddler's word-image processing algorithm, and reimplement it on a computer. Supposedly, if you have enough different simple test cases, you can just do some analysis and figure out how the toddlers do it.
I believe "????" and "PROFIT" go in there somewhere.

Effortless? (5, Insightful)

krazytekn0 (1069802) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317550)

Have you ever watched a toddler try to talk? Nothing about learning to talk is "effortless" anyone who says so either not a parent, or not thinking clearly.

Re:Effortless? (3, Insightful)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317586)

Nothing about learning to talk is "effortless" anyone who says so either not a parent, or not thinking clearly.
That's what I was thinking. They get so frustrated when they can't say what they want to say. 50% of my current parenting is spent calming the child down from frustration (she's almost 2). It seems about as effortless as training for a marathon.

Re:Effortless? (1)

Skippy_kangaroo (850507) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317614)

The toddlers have no problem talking. It's understanding them that is the difficult part.

My almost two year old is quite expressive - but his 'words' at the moment are single syllables. He quite clearly has a large vocabulary and knows what he means, but I have difficulty working out what he means. For example, on the bus the other day he kept saying "T", "T", "T". I couldn't work it out? Toe? T-shirt? No, I eventually worked out it was Tree. He was pointing to everyone he could see, and there were rather a lot of them.

Re:Effortless? (2, Insightful)

krazytekn0 (1069802) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317680)

My issue is not with talking per-se, it's with the idea that LEARNING to talk is "effortless", it's not. The majority of Toddlers spend a fair amount of time frustrated because of what they are trying to learn. If you're a parent and honestly think that it's easy being that age than either A. you don't know your kid very well, or B. Your kid is super-human. Do little kids typically get their nouns confused all the time because learning to talk is effortless? Are parents instinctually wired to speak differently (slowly, smaller words, concise meanings) around their children because it's so easy and "effortless" to learn language? There are reasons that people are always shortening words and titles around little children, and it's because it's HARD to learn all the stuff that they learn every day. And adults know this deep down and do what they can to create a kind of transitional language for their little ones.

Re:Effortless? (2, Insightful)

Skippy_kangaroo (850507) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317758)

I'll agree with your sentiment but disagree in some respects.

It takes time for a child to learn language. A toddler can get frustrated when parents (or others) don't understand what they want. But the language acquisition process is not hard in the same way as learning is hard for adults. They do not need to conciously do it. It is more instinctive and automatic than if I were to try to learn another language. Furthermore, the problem is not understanding and learning the language - the problem is expressing themselves and being mature enough to deal with not getting what they want. Toddlers have amazing understanding, but limited ability to express themselves.

So I would argue that learning languages for children is easy (comparatively speaking). But there is a lot more to growing up and communicating than just learning language - and some of those bits are hard.

Re:Effortless? (3, Insightful)

Belial6 (794905) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317834)

You are correct. People are always amazed at how quickly children learn to speak. I say that if you took your average adult, put them into a fully immersive foreign language environment, where they could not get anything for themselves, they would learn the foreign language even faster than a child. Heck, to make it a fair comparison, you also would have to give the adult multiple tutors who will happily spend every day helping with identifying words and correcting pronunciation.

Depending on your definition, most kids would not be considered fluent with their first language until the age of 4 or 5, and then generally still speak it with an accent. I would say that this is not all really any different than an adult. They are actually probably a little slower.

This just in..... (2, Funny)

Itninja (937614) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317554)

...Children have freakishly absorbent brains! Seriously, hasn't this type of info been pretty much common knowledge for like ever? Just because you attach a buzzword to it, doesn't make it a new discovery. Where's the study showing that babies and puppies have 'upward marketability'?

no scientific content here (4, Informative)

nguy (1207026) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317616)

Data mining is just a new word for discovering statistical associations in data. Of course, children learn words by learning statistical associations between images and speech sounds; that's pretty much a tautology. I mean, what's the alternative? Divine inspiration? Toddlers running around with dictionaries?

Mining but not for data (4, Funny)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317648)

My sister had a kid a year ago and the only mining I ever see him doing is in his nose.

Re:Mining but not for data (1)

tsa (15680) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317886)

My sister had a kid a year ago

What did she do with it, bring it back to the dealer?

It's obvious (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22317694)

that the human mind works very much like a binary computer and has its characteristics from duality and negation. It's basically a statistical machine, and once we have a clear *model* of how it learns, the educational process will become far more efficient, and this is a positive confirmation.

Take the following sentence as objective-subjective proof of the statistical nature:

* "It often is used and thought of ..."

How often have you seen the three first words (images) in that order?
Isn't it more common to see them in this order?:

** "It is often used and thought of ..."

Taking it a step further. (4, Interesting)

niktemadur (793971) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317718)

Anyone here familiar with the Nicaraguan school for deaf-mute children in the early eighties?

The first phase of the project was to teach these children the sign-alphabet. After this, I'm not sure if they were going to teach the full english or spanish sign-language (seems there's not an international standard for sign-language), but the point is that after a year, the experiment was deemed a failure and abandoned.

Then a couple of years later, reports started trickling out of these deaf-mute children exchanging unintelligible gibberish with their hands. A couple of researchers flew in, and were astonished to discover that these kids, using the sign-alphabet as a starting point, had developed a complete, unique language of their own in just two or three years - the first ever documented report of a fully formed, structured language bursting spontaneously into existence. These children are, of course, now adults in their thirties, still in touch with each other and communicating amongst themselves in the language they invented three decades ago.

And now, for something completely different...

Terrence McKenna, that lovable old psychonaut, postulated an empirical assumption in the eighties and nineties - language was created over many generations, via deep psilocybin trance rituals, of which the whole tribe partook. One by one, abstract concepts emerged in the back and forth play between members of the tribe, led and refereed of course by the shaman.

The Nicaraguan kids have poked serious holes into McKenna's whimsical idea. As it turns out, children can develop fully formed languages almost overnight! And so, with concrete data, a new possibility has arisen - languages burst upon the world from the mouths of children, and never mind the psychedelic substances.

Re:Taking it a step further. (1)

naoursla (99850) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318574)

I saw a talk a few years ago by a researcher claiming that a "mirror system" in the brain is responsible for the development of language. The "mirror system" is a structure that activates in the same way both for performing a grasping action and for seeing a grasping action. It allows the brain to learn grasping more quickly by helping imitation. His theory was that this enabled to gestural languages which lead to spoken language.

For some reason the wikipedia article about this has an odd name: []

Here is a 2000 paper covering the theory: []

Re:Taking it a step further. (3, Interesting)

Mints (146243) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318604)

While the term "spontaneous" is thrown around in popular accounts of Nicaraguan Sign Language, there was more going on.

Before the 1970s, the was no deaf community in Nicaragua. Each deaf child had to make their own way in life, usually aided by a crude system of signs--called a home signing system--developed with their speaking parents. In the 1970s, however, a school for the deaf was founded and children from all over Nicaragua came to it. There was some debate over which sign language was going to be taught at the school and things stalled for awhile, but in the mean time the children standardized their home signing systems with one another--made them uniform--and developed a pidgin language, which may be thought of as a language lacking some of the sophistication in grammar we associate with language. For the most part, the teachers were able to cope with this pidgin language, though sometimes it became incomprehensible.

Now very relevant to TFA is that as younger children came to the school (and other children grew up), the older kids continued to use this pidgin language (into adulthood even) but the youngest children showed signs of a more sophisticated language. So much so that their teachers who had managed to communicate, however haltingly, with with the students of the school found themselves completely unable to understand the young children by the late 1980s. Each new class of students--joining the school at a very young age--was able to adapt and extend the language, making it more expressive and robust because--as this article would argue--their young brains were so much better equipped to the task.

What Nicaraguan Sign Language suggests is not only are children better equipped to learn a language, they are likely to be the source of language invention. Each "generation" of deaf Nicaraguan children were able to use the language of their predecessors with a greater fluency. That is, they invented new degrees of fluency, new nuances of expression.

Disclaimer: I'm a linguistics student, though this isn't my field.

In unrelated news... (2, Funny)

r_jensen11 (598210) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317720)

...researchers recommend that parents read regularly to their children. Film at 11.

Applications? (1)

Paiev (1233954) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317734)

The article basically says that they've discovered that people learn multiple words at a time instead of one at a time. Sure, I could see this as being something interesting, but beyond helping baby Einstein learn how to talk slightly sooner than he would have otherwise, I don't really see how this is that important.

Multiple languages (5, Interesting)

Max Romantschuk (132276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317740)

I'm a parent in a bilingual family. (Finnish & Swedish, two fundamentally different languages.) One of the more interesting things is the way my kids pick up grammar. I speak Swedish to the kids (my first language) and my wife speaks Finnish. The kids (even our younger one and a half year olds) understand both languages more or less perfectly, but they do tend to mess up grammar and sometimes words between them. Every now and then they use the grammar of one language to conjugate a word from the other. It's all pretty interesting.

But I personally believe that the human brain does a hell of a lot more data mining than we give it credit for. There's a damn good reason why things seem clearer after a good night's sleep. The human brain is designed for massively parallel information processing, and we can't possibly handle it all in a conscious processing context. A lot happens behind the scenes. I'm guessing it's going to be quite some time still until we can fully understand the "inner workings" of the human brain.

Re:Multiple languages (1)

icydog (923695) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317972)

The human brain is designed for massively parallel information processing

Massively parallel? I can't even manage to do things right one at a time, never mind a bunch in parallel... =(

Re:Multiple languages (1)

Max Romantschuk (132276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318906)

Massively parallel? I can't even manage to do things right one at a time, never mind a bunch in parallel... =(

While you may not be able to do multiple things at the same time on a conscious level, your brain is in fact performing a hell of a lot at the same time. Take things like walking, talking, seeing etc. There is a huge flow of information going from and to your brain at any time. It's just that you can't perform two tasks at the same time and "know about it" so to speak. :)

Re:Multiple languages (2, Interesting)

gujo-odori (473191) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318036)

I'm also parent in a bilingual family (English and Vietnamese, and I'm starting to introduce our kids to Japanese, my own second language), and our kids went through that phase as well, plus an extra twist or two.

Our kids were both born in Viet Nam, but our older one learned to talk there and was initially a monolingual Vietnamese speaker, while our younger one learned to talk in the United States and was initially a monolingual English speaker, who understood some Vietnamese but could not speak it. As the older one acquired English after we moved to the United States, she began to lose Vietnamese and gravitate exclusively toward English because there was only one other Vietnamese speaker in the house (my wife), but two English speakers (myself and her sister), and she sorted out very early that we didn't talk like her and mommy.

After a couple of consecutive summer-long visits to Viet Nam with my wife, our younger has acquired Vietnamese and it has stuck (it didn't stick much after her first summer) and our older one is once again fully bilingual. She's been able to interpret between Vietnamese and English since she was three. We plan to keep up regular visits to Viet Nam, at least every other year for a long time to come, to make sure their Vietnamese fully cements itself. Typically, ten years old is the cutoff point for that. I had a classmate in college who was fully bilingual, with native accent, in Japanese and English. She was 10 when her parents immigrated to the United States. Her younger brothers were 7 and 8 at that time, and they both lost their first language, growing up to be monolingual English speakers who could understand a small amount of Japanese.

Rosetta Stone (5, Interesting)

KermodeBear (738243) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317766)

This is how the Rosetta Stone software works, if anyone was ever curious. Several pictures are shown with a phrase in the foreign language - no translation at all. You have to pick the right one. It goes through permutations of the phrase with different pictures and you eventually learn what each of the words means. It's very effective, much better than the rote memorization that I had to do in school.

Re:Rosetta Stone (1)

Mateorabi (108522) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318342)

How does it teach complex verb tenses / conjugation with pictures? I mean how does one illustrate third-person-plural-future-perfect? That was always my beef with learning other languages.

Made harder by the fact that the most basic verbs (which tend to be taught first year) in many languages (including English) have a tendency to be the most irregular. Probably because conjugation tends to become more regular for late-arriving words in a language, after rules have been established, while the most basic concepts were arround while the language was still being formed.

I mean you first teach kids 'tener' and 'estar' and then try to teach them the -ar -er- and -ir verbs. WTF?

Re:Rosetta Stone (1)

naoursla (99850) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318642)

Languages are regularized every generation. I think it is probably more a function of zipf's law. Commonly used words have more complex forms because the extra complexity is useful. Verb tense adds important information. Irregular verbs aid in disambiguation. The benefit of disambiguating words like 'be' and 'have' is greater than the disadvantage of having to remember multiple forms. Another way to think of it is that each form of 'be' is used often enough to make it worthwhile.

The Public Reaction (1)

Revotron (1115029) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317824)

In related news, privacy activists are heavily protesting this new form of data mining and are pushing Congress to mandate that all newborns come with an opt-out check box and a Privacy Policy.

Child language acquisition (5, Interesting)

backformed (1184547) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317870)

This isn't proof that children acquire language by some sort of data mining process.

When children start coming up with overregularizations like "goed" instead of "went" or "playses" in place of "plays," that kind of attempt at applying regular morphological rules to irregular items, is when you might say they are acquiring language via data mining. I.e., they hear a form used often enough that it becomes part of their knowledge about words, to the extent that that form is unconsciously applied even to make words they have certainly never heard in adult speech before.

1. I will graduate this May with a B.A. in linguistics.
2. First language acquisition is not wholly understood as of yet, but suffice it to say that it's more complicated and there are many more factors involved than the article makes it seem.
3. Sorry if I'm misunderstanding what they mean by "data mining.")

Re:Child language acquisition (2, Interesting)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318834)

Between the ages of about three and five my son got into the habit of preferring incorrect versions of some words. For example "spigot" instead of "biscuit" and "hostable" instead of "hospital".

In both cases he seemed to think his version rolled of the tongue better and should be used.

If I have a point it is that the child is to some extent making the language up as they go. As with other parts of their development they test boundaries all the time. If the language they learn is deficient in some way they will not hesitate to improve it.

God did it right! (1)

trunkthink (1229288) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317898)

After reading this article, and so many like it, it's simply amazing to see God's perfect design for us. My wife and I are less than a month from having our first child, and I can't wait to see how she will change everyday. I'll definitely be looking for early language development programs.

Re:God did it right! (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22318562)

Your post begs a question: is SIDS a work of Satan?

Baby's first word (1)

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 6 years ago | (#22317904)


Controlling for home language (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22317930)

I'd like to see them do this with a language uncommon to the children in order to control for how much language they hear at home or how advanced their usage is.

Ya, Steve Martin covered this... (1)

fahrbot-bot (874524) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318020)

...on his album "Wild and Crazy Guy" in 1978.

Kids learn to talk by listening to their parents... When you're around him, you talk wrong. So now it's like his first day in school and he raises his hand and says, "May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?"

Umm, Comprehensible Input? (1)

Daengbo (523424) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318022)

The comprehensible input theory by Stephen Krashen has been around for a long time. This is really no different, but just changes the angle of entry into the theory.

Obligatory (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22318034)

I for one welcome our new data mining toddler overlords!

Reinforcement learning (1)

Memroid (898199) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318040)

This sounds a lot like the computer science concept of Reinforcement learning [] .

From Wikipedia:

Derived from the psychological theory of the same name, in computer science, reinforcement learning is a sub-area of machine learning concerned with how an agent ought to take actions in an environment so as to maximize some notion of long-term reward.

Reinforcement learning differs from the supervised learning problem in that correct input/output pairs are never presented, nor sub-optimal actions explicitly corrected. Further, there is a focus on on-line performance, which involves finding a balance between exploration (of uncharted territory) and exploitation (of current knowledge).

However, I'm not sure whether the rewards relating to the reinforced learning would be extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. I'm just throwing out ideas here, but perhaps it could be related to endorphins (or some like that) being released when a baby sees something it recognizes(correctly predicts).

[Note that I don't really know a lot about AI or biology, and am just forming various hypothesis.]

I have observed this in action (1)

Centurix (249778) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318050)

When I stubbed my toe the other day in front of my 2 1/2 year old, it was more like a quarry. Didn't have to dig far for something interesting to learn there...

Isn't this how Google Translate works? (1)

IvyMike (178408) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318112)

The English->Arabic lanaguage path [] essentially learns how to translate by looking at a whole bunch of examples. Yes, the Google Algorithm sometimes screws up (the recent "Heath Ledger is dead" translation thing) but then again, so do toddlers.

Re-Search? (0, Redundant)

udippel (562132) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318130)

Funny, this. Mainly how irrelevant stuff overruns the editors. Okay, kdawson is off the RedMond-track ...

Waiting for the day, when we read in /. that research has established without doubt that 2 legs are suitable to walk.
I'd like to ask, how abstracta fit into this mine-field of links between content and images.

In any case, this smells like Chomsky**2, and the old man himself will be up in arms.

Reading (1)

carnus (988801) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318156)

I believe this is why it is important to start reading illustrated books to your children as soon as possible.

OhMyGawd (1)

udippel (562132) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318238)

I surely picked the wrong place ... :(

Researchers in Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences have received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how the brain uses highly complex statistics to learn language. [...] Assistant professor Chen Yu and Linda B. Smith, professor and chair of the department [...]

I sincerely hope we'll be seeing more and better stuff coming along from these Brain Scientists. (Am I the only one with an indelible association with some Flying Circus when I read these words?)

It's a big deal because.... (1)

kevinaswell (1140515) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318306)

They big key point in this article is we're understanding how we're learning. You know who can't learn too well yet? Computers. Who learns much better than them? We do. Learning how we learn (weird.) is a huge step in technological advancement, more specifically in the advancement of A.I. Maybe with this, the I won't be so A.

err (1)

bucket_brigade (1079247) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318518)

since when is old news considered new and exciting research?

Research? (1)

Anne Thwacks (531696) | more than 6 years ago | (#22318598)

As research goes, this ranks along with the "discovery" that alcohol makes students drunk.
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