Native Village Youth and Education News
September 2009


How Do Kids Become Bilingual So Easily?
Condensed by Native Village

Washington:  The best time to learn a foreign language: Between birth and age 7.  New research by international scientists is showing just how children's brains learn so quickly.
Each language uses a unique set of sounds, and babies are born with the ability to distinguish all of them. But that ability starts weakening even before they start talking, by the first birthday.
For example, for the Japanese, the "L" and "R" sounds of English -- "rake" and "lake" -- sound the same. But scientists have proved that a 7-month-old in Tokyo and a 7-month-old in Seattle respond equally well to those different sounds. By 11 months, however, the Japanese infant had lost a lot of that ability.
And how DO you test a baby? By tracking eye gaze. Make a fun toy appear on one side or the other whenever there's a particular sound. The baby learns to look on that side when he or she hears a brand-new but similar sound. Brain scans show how the brain is processing and imprinting language. As babies grow older, the brain tunes out sounds that don't fit.

"You're building a brain architecture that's a perfect fit for Japanese or English or French," whatever is native, explains Dr. Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington. Or, if you're a lucky baby, a brain with two sets of neural circuits dedicated to two languages.
Babies being raised in bilingual environments can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. Babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.

Scientists hope the new findings will help older children and adults learn languages more easily.

"We think the magic that kids apply to this learning situation, some of the principles, can be imported into learning programs for adults," said Kuhl. Kuhl is now part of an international team trying to turn those lessons into more teachable technology.

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