New Study Sheds Light on How Babies Learn to Speak a Language

From infancy to adulthood, people absorb about 12.5 million bits of information about language.
ByStephanie Grassullo
Associate Editor
Published
Mar 2019

One minute baby is only babbling, but the next thing you know they’re speaking actual words. From there, their vocabulary quickly expands, and before you know it they’re moody teenagers who you can’t shut the heck up. We know the general progression that happens over time, but the question is how does it happen? A new study from The University of California sheds some light on the topic.

Researchers say language acquisition between birth and 18 is a feat of cognition as opposed to something our brains are hardwired to do. From infancy to adulthood, people absorb about 12.5 million bits of information about language. This is equivalent to about a 1.5 MB floppy disk, according to the study.

“Ours is the first study to put a number on the amount you have to learn to acquire language,” says study senior author Steven Piantadosi. “It highlights that children and teens are remarkable learners, absorbing upwards of 1,000 bits of information each day.”

A lot goes into learning a native language other than tying together different words. The study found that linguistic knowledge focuses mostly on the meaning of words, as opposed to the grammar of language. Think about it. When kids are introduced to a word they don’t know, they ask a handful of questions to find out more details, all the while expanding their knowledge of the language.

“A lot of research on language learning focuses on syntax, like word order,” Piantadosi says. “But our study shows that syntax represents just a tiny piece of language learning, and that the main difficulty has got to be in learning what so many words mean.”

There you have it. It really is just semantics.

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