Nav: Home

Kids store 1.5 megabytes of information to master their native language

March 27, 2019

Learning one's native language may seem effortless. One minute, we're babbling babies. The next we're in school reciting Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech or Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice."

But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that language acquisition between birth and 18 is a remarkable feat of cognition, rather than something humans are just hardwired to do.

Researchers calculated that, from infancy to young adulthood, learners absorb approximately 12.5 million bits of information about language -- about two bits per minute -- to fully acquire linguistic knowledge. If converted into binary code, the data would fill a 1.5 MB floppy disk, the study found.

The findings, published today in the Royal Society Open Science journal, challenge assumptions that human language acquisition happens effortlessly, and that robots would have an easy time mastering it.

"Ours is the first study to put a number on the amount you have to learn to acquire language," said study senior author Steven Piantadosi, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. "It highlights that children and teens are remarkable learners, absorbing upwards of 1,000 bits of information each day."

For example, when presented with the word "turkey," a young learner typically gathers bits of information by asking, "Is a turkey a bird? Yes, or no? Does a turkey fly? Yes, or no?" and so on, until grasping the full meaning of the word "turkey."

A bit, or binary digit, is a basic unit of data in computing, and computers store information and calculate using only zeroes and ones. The study uses the standard definition of eight bits to a byte.

"When you think about a child having to remember millions of zeroes and ones (in language), that says they must have really pretty impressive learning mechanisms."

Piantadosi and study lead author Frank Mollica, a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive science at the University of Rochester, sought to gauge the amounts and different kinds of information that English speakers need to learn their native language.

They arrived at their results by running various calculations about language semantics and syntax through computational models. Notably, the study found that linguistic knowledge focuses mostly on the meaning of words, as opposed to the grammar of language.

"A lot of research on language learning focuses on syntax, like word order," Piantadosi said. "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."

That focus on semantics versus syntax distinguishes humans from robots, including voice-controlled digital helpers such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.

"This really highlights a difference between machine learners and human learners," Piantadosi said. "Machines know what words go together and where they go in sentences, but know very little about the meaning of words."

As for the question of whether bilingual people must store twice as many bits of information, Piantadosi said this is unlikely in the case of word meanings, many of which are shared across languages.

"The meanings of many common nouns like 'mother' will be similar across languages, and so you won't need to learn all of the bits of information about their meanings twice," he said.
-end-


University of California - Berkeley

Related Language Articles:

Human language most likely evolved gradually
One of the most controversial hypotheses for the origin of human language faculty is the evolutionary conjecture that language arose instantaneously in humans through a single gene mutation.
'She' goes missing from presidential language
MIT researchers have found that although a significant percentage of the American public believed the winner of the November 2016 presidential election would be a woman, people rarely used the pronoun 'she' when referring to the next president before the election.
How does language emerge?
How did the almost 6000 languages of the world come into being?
New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.
Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
Lying in a foreign language is easier
It is not easy to tell when someone is lying.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Uncharted
There's so much we've yet to explore–from outer space to the deep ocean to our own brains. This hour, Manoush goes on a journey through those uncharted places, led by TED Science Curator David Biello.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#555 Coronavirus
It's everywhere, and it felt disingenuous for us here at Science for the People to avoid it, so here is our episode on Coronavirus. It's ok to give this one a skip if this isn't what you want to listen to right now. Check out the links below for other great podcasts mentioned in the intro. Host Rachelle Saunders gets us up to date on what the Coronavirus is, how it spreads, and what we know and don't know with Dr Jason Kindrachuk, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba. And...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 1: Numbers
In a recent Radiolab group huddle, with coronavirus unraveling around us, the team found themselves grappling with all the numbers connected to COVID-19. Our new found 6 foot bubbles of personal space. Three percent mortality rate (or 1, or 2, or 4). 7,000 cases (now, much much more). So in the wake of that meeting, we reflect on the onslaught of numbers - what they reveal, and what they hide.  Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.