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July 26, 2001

How babies acquire building blocks of speech affects later reading and language ability, UW researcher tells White House Summit on Cognitive Development

WASHINGTON – One of the scientists leading the effort to understand exactly how infants go about learning language told a White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development today that the fundamental steps in language acquisition later play a critical role in the ability to read.

Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Learning at the University of Washington, explained to more than 350 government, education and community leaders gathered at Georgetown University that new research findings may make it easier to diagnose children with reading problems.

“Our studies now show that infants’ abilities to distinguish speech sound at 6 months of age correlate with language abilities,” she said. “The better infants are at distinguishing the phonetic units – the building blocks of speech – the better they are years later at other more complex language skills. Children with language and reading problems have trouble distinguishing the basic sound units used in speech.

“Since early speech skills predict later language skills, there is enormous hope that new tests will allow us to identify, very early, children who are at risk for later language difficulties. Early identification allows for intervention.”

Kuhl made her comments on the opening day of a two-day summit called “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn,” hosted by First Lady Laura Bush. The event is designed to expand awareness of research and highlight proven early-learning activities that parents and educators can use to prepare young children for school.

Kuhl called infants “the best learners in the universe” and described her work that shows babies begin learning in the first months of life. Her studies have disclosed, for example, that infants are “citizens of the world” at birth and that early in life they can hear the differences between all the consonants and vowels used in any language.

But to learn a specific language, she said, they have to learn which sound distinctions are meaningful in their language. English, for example, separates “R” from “L.” Japanese does not. Already by 12 months, infants have the rules down, Kuhl said.

“Infants are behaving like a computer without its printer hooked up – they store millions of bits of information before they can speak, simply by listening, and this tunes the infant brain, for example, to English rather than French or Japanese. They do this incredibly early. Infants are mastering language simply by listening to us talk,” she said.

The language that parents, caretakers and most other people use unconsciously to communicate with infants is called “motherese” or “parentese.” Kuhl discovered that this exaggerated, well-formed type of speech is used in cultures around the world and babies prefer and learn from it.

Kuhl called for more partnerships between researchers, business leaders, educators and government agencies, not only to support research into early childhood development but also to share the results with parents and teachers. The new UW Center for Mind, Brain and Learning is a model of that kind of cooperation. It is doing interdisciplinary research on early learning and the brain and is partnered with and funded by the Talaris Research Institute, whose mission is to sponsor research and disseminate the results to parents and educators. The National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation also support the center’s work. The center’s co-director, Andrew Meltzoff, an expert in cognitive and social development in children, also is participating in the White House summit.

“Understanding the developing mind and brain is one of the next great scientific frontiers and holds far-reaching practical implications,” Meltzoff said. “A child’s language and literacy skills can be improved by what caretakers do during the early preschool years. Scientists have shown that reading books to children in a way that promotes dialogue with them and that playing rhyming games both lay the foundation for reading skills.”

“The public needs to know what the science shows about how kids learn, and people also need to know what methods don’t work or what science hasn’t yet tested,” Kuhl said. “It’s as important to explain that ‘parentese’ may help infants learn as it is to say that showing flash cards to a 9 month old will not cause them to read any sooner.”

Meltzoff added, “The goal is not to try to push children too early and create super-kids, but to help all children develop to their maximum potential. Education is the key.”
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For more information, contact Sidney Kwiram or Matt Rivara at (206) 221-6473, (206) 255-2307 (mobile) or smkwiram@u.washington.edu