Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Lily from Menomonie, WI. Lily Wonders, “How do babies learn to talk?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Lily !
Do you have a vivid imagination? Try this simple exercise. Imagine that you fall asleep and hours later wake up in a foreign country.
You have no idea where you are or how you got there. You find a few friendly faces and attempt to communicate, but you quickly realize that you have no idea what they're saying.
After a frantic search, you realize that no one speaks your language. There are no computers available. There are no translators. To get back home, you are going to have to learn to communicate in a new language.
How long will that take? It's hard to tell. There's no one to teach you. You simply have to listen and try to learn the language on your own. Sound impossible? It's not. In fact, you've done it before. The task you face is quite similar to the task you faced when you were born. You didn't have a translator, a grammar book, or a speech coach, but you learned to speak anyway!
If you can imagine such a scenario, you can appreciate the miraculous nature of how we all come to learn to talk. It's a linguistic mystery that scientists still don't fully understand. Exactly how is it that we can be born and just a few years later have a basic command of a language and a vocabulary of thousands of words?
When you think about a baby's first words, it's clear that imitation probably plays a role in learning those first sounds that equate to words. After hearing your parents repeat "mama" and "dada" over and over again, it's no surprise that such words are the first a baby might learn to speak.
However, linguistic experts believe that there's much more than just imitation at work. For example, as soon as children begin to speak and put together two words to form their first sentences, they're able to express original thoughts that don't necessarily imitate anything they've heard before.
Some experts believe that children begin to construct for themselves a basic set of rules about language that they learn from listening to those around them. Through trial and error, they quickly learn to choose words and put them in an order that will efficiently communicate their wants and needs.
As children mature, their speech grows and improves as they add to and amend their system of rules to match more closely the speech of those around them. Incredibly, children all over the world appear to learn to talk in similar ways in a similar sequence on a similar developmental timetable.
How can that be? Some researchers believe that the ability to learn language is somewhat innate in human beings. Plato had that idea thousands of years ago and researchers are still trying to determine whether he was right.
Some experts disagree with the notion that humans are born with an innate ability to learn language, but at least one recent study has provided some support for that notion. Even if there is an innate component to language acquisition, researchers point out that children are impacted greatly by the conversations they hear and take part in. There are many pieces of the language acquisition puzzle, and researchers know they don't fully understand them all yet.