How to overclock a child's Language Acquisition skills?

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/09/10 16:47 -04:00, original URI:

Earlier this year, I remember saying

It is amazing how the number of times you need to bite your freaking tongue around parents is directly proportional to how many things you learn about language acquisition!

And it is true -- because parents will often say the most inane or insane things abut their kids and their language skills. :-)

But I did like the study at the University of Washington about how Brief exposure to Mandarin can help American infants learn Chinese. The most interesting point of which is that (if true) it means that brief REAL exposure to a greater number of phonemes during that critical stage before all of the youngster's language instincts have faded could make later language acquisition easier.

The fun trick now might be to figure the smallest number of languages that would allow for the largest number of phonemes to be learned by a child -- and then to arrange for a series of nannies or whatnot who know those languages to come and speak them?

I wonder if the big language/phoneme chart exists somewhere to try to make such an acquisition plan.... :-)

Not to ding Dora the Explorer (or Sesame Street's efforts to compete with her!), but that sort of plan would be of more real in terms of benefit to a child if a parent wanted to make an effort!

(Hat tip to Raymond)

Thus post brought to you by A (U+0041, a.k.a. LATIN CAPITAL LETTER A)

Chuck on 10 Sep 2006 6:06 PM:

One place to start:

Michael Dunn_ on 10 Sep 2006 8:43 PM:

If you could find a !Xóõ speaker, that would cover most of the bases.

But if you're going for less-esoteric languages, I'd pick these languages:
Mandarin - for tones and aspiration
French or Portuguese - for some Romance background and nasal vowels
Swedish - for pitch accent and vowel length
Maybe Vietnamese too if you're feeling daring - for more tones and phonemes

jogloran on 10 Sep 2006 9:05 PM:


Jeremy Bettis on 10 Sep 2006 9:35 PM:

This is also a great argument for speaking many words to your babies, and reading them stories.

I remember people teasing us because we didn't talk to our children in baby-talk, but spoke to them with a full vocabulary even though they didn't understand it.

Jim Jimjim on 11 Sep 2006 5:18 PM:

I wonder about the trade-offs though.  Just as multilingual children have smaller per-language vocabularies, maybe it's the case that children exposed to Mandarin have more trouble later on discriminating spoken English that is faint, noisy, or just accented.

Perhaps we prevent their feature detectors from overfitting the English phoneme training data, but we shouldn't forget that the dectector calibration is there for a reason.

Zach on 13 Sep 2006 10:57 AM:

Dora can be insideious. Rachel (my daughter for those of you other than Michael) had been for weeks saying what sounded to us like "A Gentelman! A Gentelman!" and we had no idea what she was saying.  It turned out she was saying "Aiuda mei!" which means "help me" in spanish.

Hopefully her exposure to spanish (via dora) and other languages through various other people/media will give her much better language skills than her parents.

Michael S. Kaplan on 13 Sep 2006 11:00 AM:

Ah, so no Thai nanny is planned? :-)

Zach on 14 Sep 2006 11:23 AM:

Is she really hot? Because i'm on board for that one. :-)

Michael S. Kaplan on 14 Sep 2006 11:43 AM:

Well I'd assume the hiring decision would be a joint one that you would have to justify to your S.O., so I'll let you judge the likelihood of that. :-)

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