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The Tower of Babble: How Humans Learn Language

02/08/2013 02:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Babies are true geniuses.

And, if you think about it, you'll see that humans in general are therefore geniuses. After all, we come into the world unarmed with language; our only way to communicate our basic needs for food, or a diaper change, or affection, is through crying.

Soon enough, though, the crying isn't enough anymore. To get what we want, we begin to mimic the speech they hear from our parents, siblings, and other people around us. The informational sponge that is a baby's fast-developing, truly remarkable brain begins to advance from meaningless sounds to full-on sentences (and eventually even Huffington Post articles).

The process of how babies go from babblers to speakers to bloggers is, more or less, the subject of MIT researcher Deb Roy's recent ambitious study on linguistic development. In an effort to understand how children learn words, he wired his home with bird's-eye view cameras and microphones for three years to collect data on his son. The home videos begin with his son's arrival home from the hospital and end at the age of 3 years, offering Roy and his team unprecedented access to real-life moments in the language learning process.

Through collecting data on moments big and small -- and there are a lot of moments contained in 90,000 hours of footage -- Roy's findings demonstrate with certainty not only how impressive, but how innate the huge task of learning a language is for a baby. Humans are hardwired, it seems, to learn how to talk. After all, no one teaches us how to learn our first language, at least not in the academic sense of, "here, baby, conjugate these verbs." As infants, we simply, naturally learn something we haven't ever done before -- which is to speak.

What is truly fascinating about Roy's work is its finding that just as children have an innate ability to learn language, their caregivers -- anyone from a mother to an older sibling to the teenage babysitter from down the block -- have an innate ability to teach it.

Turns out, we're all natural teachers. According to Roy's study, we are not only genius learners as babies, but also naturally genius teachers as adults. In charting the complexity of statements containing a word to be learned, researchers found that caregivers naturally alter their language to make learning it as simple as possible. This subconscious simplifying effort correlates perfectly to the readiness of a child to learn a word. And, once the child has a good grip on the word's pronunciation and meaning, we automatically begin using it in more and more complex ways.

That's right. You have a sixth sense for teaching babies to talk and you didn't even know it. When we employ this sixth sense, we ease a child safely into a language rather than throwing her off the deep end.

While it's pretty apparent that kids mimic their caregivers to learn a language, what might not be apparent is that the environment too plays a big role, in teaching and learning alike. In fact, one of the findings in Roy's study expresses in a quantifiable way just how important location and context are for kids to learn words.

After all, we might say that words on their own are just a collection of sounds that don't really have a stand-alone meaning. It is when words are assigned meaning that they become useful as vehicles to express ideas or to identify tangible things in our environment. When we learn a language, we associate a word's meaning with events and the smells, sights, tactile experiences that go with them.

So, in the study, Roy's team tracked not just how many times his son heard a word, but also the rooms in the house where his caretakers said it most. This produced data, for instance, that tracked the learning of the word "water" as related to the bathroom and the kitchen and the word "bye" as in the front hall and foyer. Truly, where we learn is maybe just as important as when we learn. The implications of this discovery, or proof of it anyway, are enough to potentially shift the way we teach language in more academic settings, too.

Beyond language learning, Roy and his team also research social networks on a global scale. The resulting data representations (I urge you to watch them near the end of the video, they're stunning) expose how rapidly a single word or event can set fire to the digital, global conversations we have not only as a nation, but as a world.

As the planet continues to globalize, perhaps it's worth keeping in mind that we all come into the world speaking the same language (crying) and that, given the huge gift of living in a time where we can connect with people in other nations at the click of a track pad, we can more or less participate in the same conversations. I hope remembering this will make us more aware of our similarities as humans than of our differences.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.

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