How do humans, as babies, learn a language?

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How do humans, as babies, learn a language?

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5 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

This might be too big a question for an ELI5. This is a really old question in psychology, and while there are many competing theories in that time, the question isn’t definitively answered yet.

Our shortest and best understanding is that during the sensitive period of brain development where neurons are still organizing themselves into “discreet” brain parts, babies are getting a lot of really interesting information about what words do. This is an advantage that seems specific to humans (and some birds with learning song), but beyond that there’s a mountain of research trying to figure out how the hell it actually happens the way it does.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s a buildup of lots of smaller lessons.

The people who feed me sure do make a lot of noises.

Oh hey, I can make that noise. Let’s make it at them and see what happens.

They loved it, I’ll keep doing it! What other sounds can I make?

They keep making this one sound when they point at my ball, I’ll mimic it. Hey, they really loved that!

Oh goodness, they give me milk if I make this one sound! And it keeps working!

This particular sound *means* milk!

I wonder what these other sounds mean?

Anonymous 0 Comments

Our brains are sort of wired in a way that acquiring a language as a baby is an instinct. That is true for all human languages, including sign languages: deaf babies will start signing at the same age as non-deaf babies start babbling.

This is not only mimickery of what sounds adults are producing: as it turns out, all human languages follow some sort of very general rules, which our brains sort of expect in a way.
This is why kids tend to say “I goed” instead of “I went”, even though no adult around them used “goed”: their brains tried to derive past tense rules it learned from other words.

Sadly, it seems there is a crucial time at which humans can learn a first language. If they miss that development opportunity, they are never able to use language in any way. Thats the case of [Genie](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_%28feral_child%29?wprov=sfla1) (Trigger Warning: This wikipedia article describes child abuse).

(Everything I wrote here comes from Steven Pinker’s beautiful book The Language Instinct, science may have evolved since then).

Anonymous 0 Comments

The same way that anybody learns any language.

As a baby or small child, you’re surrounded by people who can speak a certain language (aka parents). They make these sounds over and over and eventually your brain connects the sounds to specific meanings. Then there’s grammar, which honestly some people still struggle with in their lingua franca. Language is also constantly evolving through slang and things like that so sometimes it’s hard to keep up even as a adult.

Inversely, think about learning a second language as an adult. I’ve been casually learning Japanese for about 4 years. Sometimes I get frustrated with my lack of progress but when I put it into perspective I remember that it probably took me 2-4 years when I was a baby to be able to formulate actual coherent thoughts in English. And even today as a 32 year old I’m often learning new words in English that I might not have known before. Plus all of that new-fangled gen z slang that I’m expected to keep up with.

In summary, it’s all about constant stimulation and repetition. Sooner than later your brain adapts to associating certain sounds with meanings and then boom, you have a means of communication.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The basic answer is that over millions of years of evolution we developed brains that are very good at pattern recognition. Language can be thought of as an extension of that pattern recognition + environmental pressure.