UW Today

This is an archived article.

February 18, 1999

Babies, the greatest learners on Earth, and how they crack the speech code are topic for faculty lecture Feb. 24

P.T. Barnum would have loved promoting Patricia Kuhl’s research subjects: those tiny, gurgling, smiling babies whose brains are packed with neurons waiting to be stimulated and connect with other nerve cells to perform wonders that computer programmers can only dream of duplicating.
“The human brain is the greatest learning device ever created,” says Kuhl, chair of the University of Washington’s speech and hearing science department, who will deliver the 23rd annual UW faculty lecture at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24 in Kane Hall, room 130. Admission is free and the public is welcome.
“A baby has a tremendous capacity for learning and an infant’s brain computes in a way that is well beyond what a thousand super computers can do,” says Kuhl, a neuroscientist who is at the forefront of the effort to understand how humans acquire language and speech.
Her research focuses on the development of language and speech and how language information is stored in the brain. Kuhl’s innovative research has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the mechanisms of perception, changing a person’s ability to hear certain distinctions in speech. This work also shows that vision and hearing also play a role in processing language information both in early infancy and adulthood.

Working with infants from a variety of human cultures, Kuhl and her colleagues have shown how babies’ early auditory experiences play a critical role in the acquisition of language during the first year of life. She is perhaps most well-know to the general public for work that shows people across cultures use a “parentese” or “motherese,” a form of language marked by exaggerated, drawn-out sounds when talking to babies. This communication is unconsciously used by people of all ages, even small children, when they talk to infants.

“Parentese provides information nuggets and conveys warmth to the infant in a package that is unique. It’s ideally suited to babies,” Kuhl says.

While her work naturally has strong implications in understanding human development, it also has major implications in determining how the brain organizes and stores complex information and in learning how computers might be programmed to comprehend and respond to spoken language. Kuhl’s work is being closely followed by a number of major computer software and communications companies.

“There is enormous interest in the brain, computers and computer learning. One day, every PC will have a microphone instead of a keyboard and computers will be far more intelligent than they are today. That will alter much of our world and the changes will be astounding. We’ll be directing the flight of an airplane by voice, opening the doors and locks to our homes by voice and turning appliances on and off by voice,” she believes.

Such a world is still years and many challenges away because, as she says, “right now, computers can only understand limited commands and none even matches a 3-year-old child. “

In addition to being chair of the speech and hearing department, Kuhl is the William P. and Ruth Gerberding University Professor and has adjunct appointments in the departments of psychology and otolaryngology.