Kids do language lab 'work' at UA
Arizona Daily Star
April 21, 2008


By Rhonda Bodfield

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

 Nine-month-old Brenton Delp is too little to know anything about linguistics.

But his contributions to science could someday play some small role in settling a decades-long debate within the linguistics community about whether language is learned or innate and hard-wired into all of us.

Perched on his mother's lap in a tiny cubicle on the fourth floor of the University of Arizona's Psychology Building one afternoon last week, Brenton is one of about 300 babies a year who come through what researchers affectionately call the Tweety Language Development Lab. Researchers there are trying to unravel two big questions: How much do babies know about language when they come in, and how much can they learn about new language in a compressed time?

Head researcher LouAnn Gerken, a professor of psychology and linguistics, became interested in the subject in graduate school and never looked back.

"Language is so important, and it's something we use all the time, but we don't really stop to think about how we get to have it," Gerken said.

"We're born and we don't have it, and then a couple years later, we've got it. I was really interested in that process."

By the time Gerken was in school, linguist Noam Chomsky already had postulated that humans have inherent language skills that develop on their own a theory that pitted him against those who say humans must be conditioned to learn language and we do it because we get something out of it.

For Chomsky, the innate-language theory explains how human language follows some roughly consistent rules and patterns, no matter how different the languages themselves are.

It also explains why children go through acquiring a language in roughly the same way and around the same age.

Gerken is something of a Chomsky skeptic, saying she thought the underpinnings of the research leaned more toward the anecdotal than scientific rigor. So ever since she came to the UA in 1995, she's been running the baby lab.

Currently operating under a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health, the lab runs about 10 experiments a year, trying to ferret out the mysteries of how we learn to express human thought.

To neutralize experiences among babies, researchers use Russian or even nonsense words. To gauge learning, researchers play a passage for babies, who can listen to that sound as long as their heads are turned toward the speaker playing the passage. When they turn away, the sound changes.

Brenton's mother, Alyson Delp, 31, a UA grad, wanted to do her part to support the school. Plus, she thought it would be nice for her children to know they supported science in some fashion in their formative years. Delp's oldest son (she has three), Caiden, 4, has participated in eight different trials.

Caiden showed up last week with his little brother to participate in a study for 4-year-olds that attempts to get clues on how children learn certain sound sequences that often trip them up, such as the "tr" in "truck" for instance.

The question is whether they overcome it through mere practice or if they just need to hear it more often.

After admiring Caiden's cool orange striped T-shirt and making small talk about "Sesame Street," graduate student Peter Richtsmeier told Caiden he was going to play a computer game that would test Caiden's ability to articulate a tricky combination.

Richtsmeier said findings show kids are better at pronouncing tricky combinations if they hear several different words with those combinations and if the words are spoken by several different speakers, as opposed to just hearing them from the same person.

This would have implications for standard speech therapy sessions, during which an adult says a word and a child tries to repeat it.

Researchers are always cautious about making grand leaps, but the research does suggest a possible technique of supplementing those traditional therapies with giving the child more input from more voices.

A few other findings:

● There appears to be an optimal learning window for language. A recent study is finding that 7 1/2-month-old babies have more trouble than 4-month-olds learning a language pattern that never occurs in a "real-world language," such as stressing all syllables that start with "t."

Gerken said she believes that might be because the older infants have learned in their nascent exposure to English that they shouldn't expect certain patterns, causing them to ignore them in a new language.

Younger children are more malleable and more open to a wider set of generalizations.

One implication of this research is that it is very important to screen newborn hearing and to do subsequent tests, because so much language is learned during the first year, before the infant ever shows any sign of understanding or producing language.

Much of the language we see in toddlers is based on learning they did in infancy.

● Young children may have more awareness of their own knowledge than we've given them credit for.

Sure, they tend to be vastly overconfident when they verbally report on their abilities to run fast or match up sets of pairs. But when asked to point at things they learned in the lab, they were more accurate.

This could mean that children can be taught to use more sophisticated learning strategies to guide their learning at younger ages than traditionally thought.

Right now, researchers are looking into how well babies can predict their own learning by measuring whether the babies will keep paying attention to problems that are challenging but that they can solve, versus those that are just too hard.

That's all well and good, of course. But for those of us who like our science to be useful, what can we glean from it?

Gerken said one implication of the findings is that babies are learning a lot about language and figuring out how it works. (Take that, Chomsky.)

So talking to a baby and giving the baby lots of input are good ideas. If parents are considering exposing children to a second language, Gerken said, they're terrific learners when they're young. (So maybe those high school language requirements are coming a little late.)

Although babies get to choose a book on their first visit, and gift certificates are offered to parents who bring their babies back for three studies, the only reward for the first few studies is knowing that Junior is contributing to a larger knowledge base about how the brain works.

Well, there is perhaps one other, less selfless benefit. You just may be able to boast at your next dinner party that your baby is so smart, she learned the basic rules of Russian in just a few minutes.

● Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at or at 573-4118.