Are kids really such geniuses?

Learning a new language is not easy. For example, if you want to learn Italian so that you can have a conversation in your favorite holiday country, you will have to invest a lot of time. After a beginner’s course, you may be able to have some simple conversations, but if you want to be able to engage in an Italian conversation about politics, it will take years. Even then, the chances of learning to speak at the native level are very slim – if you do not decide to live in Italy.

Tessa Postoma de Boer on the faces of science

However, we all learned our native language without much effort. At least, it looks like we didn’t have to do much for it. As a child, you learn language in a very natural way, just by listening carefully, and without taking difficult grammar books. But that it takes so little effort is really a myth according to Sybren Spit. “Children are busy learning the language all day, and tens of thousands of hours are devoted to it. We adults simply do not have that time.”

Our consciousness is not on or off

So spitting questioned previous assumptions that children learn language very quickly and easily compared to adults. It was mainly inspired by the book Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Van Frans de Waal, as a biologist explains that there is a lot more behind the behavior of animals than we think at first glance. By measuring in a different way than the traditional method, you can map out to better perceive the animals.

Spitting also wanted to reveal what was going on in the baby’s brain. Because we call the process magical, perhaps because we don’t know enough about it. “A child’s language acquisition is often thought of as a completely unconscious process, and it is completely automatic. However, in the psychology of consciousness there is a long line of research showing that our consciousness is not on or off, but has all kinds of degrees. With a mode This broad spectrum in mind, we wanted to look: perhaps children are familiar with grammar, but not yet in a way that they can put it into words well, as adults do.”

Learn the words: Zambo, Banu, and Bufu

Photo from the experiment with description: Marco Regarda ble Zambo “Marco eats (several) apples”. In the self-invented language there are many two-syllable words such as zambo (apple), bano (cat) and puvu (strawberry).

Sybren Spit for NEMO Kennislink

In his PhD research, he put this test to the test. In a first series of experiments, he had fifty children from groups 1 and 2 from elementary school (a group as small as possible, but old enough to participate in an experiment) learn words and grammar of a nonexistent language. For this he chose components from Esperanto and West African languages. “I opened a dictionary in Esperanto and picked the words out at random, then stuck my own meaning to them,” Speight says. “The advantage of these words is that they are very systematically built. For example, all nouns have two syllables, such as zambo, jigsaw or buffo.”

Spit adapted the words he used for the experiment so that they were all easy to learn for native Dutch speakers. In addition, he added a grammar rule spoken in West African Gbe languages, and simplified it for preschoolers. It was about a rule defining how the combination should work. Each noun they learned was accompanied by a grammatical word see or pli by see has no meaning, and pli I stood for collection. Tre Zampo It can mean one or two apples, but please zambo It always represents more than one apple.

Slot game: one apple or more?

Preschoolers are told a half-hour story about four children who are traveling to a far country and have to learn a new language. In between, they were presented with pictures in which they heard descriptive sentences such as Maria Rygarda Tra Zambo, Mary eats an apple. To keep the children focused, they were instructed to repeat the words and phrases regularly.

In one experiment, they played a guessing game next. It was always presented with a combination of words, such as Tre Zampo And please zambo An image showing one or more apples. bee Tre Zampo Both pictures are good because the word see It says nothing about the singular or the plural; bee please zambo Only the image showing several apples is correct. The children in this game were allowed to choose whether they wanted to guess the correct answer or not. Spit: “The result was that children with word combinations with pli Usually wants to gamble, but not in groups with see. This indicates their knowledge of the rule: because pli It is the only word that says something about plural, you can only make the right decision with this formula. So the kids realized that, while they couldn’t formulate the rule themselves.”

By measuring the eye movements of the test subjects, you can also measure their unconscious thought processes.

Eye movements make a difference

In a follow-up experiment, participants received the same linguistic input as in the previous experiment, but two groups were formed: one group was given an explanation of the grammatical rule, while the other was not. Meanwhile, their eye movements were measured. Remarkably, the group in which the rule was explained did not score better than the control group, but rather looked at the correct picture. The researchers found a similar result when they postponed the assessment by one day.

Eye movements also showed a group difference under this condition. “Again, the children who received explanations no longer gave good answers during the test, but their eye movements were affected,” Speight says. “So you see that something is happening unconsciously.”

Paula Weckert, a Dutch professor of linguistics who specializes in children’s language acquisition who was not involved in this research, supports his conclusion. “It is very interesting to find this difference in the group. Perhaps not in explicit knowledge of the norm, but even mature speakers will have trouble with it. The difference in eye movements seems very systematic to say something. This indicates that they picked up something, even if He was still unconscious. I also tested children in this age group, and even then it turns out that you can tell more from their eye movements than from the explicit test results.”

false optimism

By analogy in a different way, Spit showed that young children are already familiar with the grammatical rule, without being able to express it. This is an important vision for education. “Certainly for children who start primary school with a language delay, it is important to see if we can help them by providing additional explanations.”

Featured by Editors


“The distinction between nature and culture is no longer tenable.”


The search for the origin matters to all of us

A winning letter from an ancient oak tree

Just like adults, children sometimes benefit from explicit learning of grammar, as this speeds up the learning process. The fact that they usually learn these rules without receiving an explanation is easy to explain, according to the researcher: unlike adults, children have plenty of time to discover the rules in the vast amount of words and sentences they are given every day. .

Spit: “In linguistics, it has become a PR talk that children are great learners. While: Of course they are very slow. It takes years for them to fully master their mother tongue. When an adult begins learning a new language and produces their first word a year later, you begin to wonder Asking if everything is going well. This does not make the process of language acquisition for children any less special. But the label ‘fast’ that is often put may be due to the false optimism of parents, for whom time passes very quickly with young children.”

According to Fikret, the language learning process for young children is paradoxical. On the other hand, it’s great how quickly kids discover patterns in language. The brain develops very quickly, especially in the first three years of life. But, of course, they need a lot of time to master the language. Language learning certainly does not happen by itself.”

Leave a Comment