Kids, Language & Brains


Unfolding Children’s Language 2

What's going on here?  What are these kids doing?  What's their language?  What's their grammar?  What's their sound system?  Such were the basic questions Roger Brown and his graduate students were asking as they studied the transcripts to see what the development of language looked like in a naturalistic setting.  This kind of analysis of how children acquire language is a product of the recent past.  Prior to this, investigation of language acquisition failed to comprehend how the components of language's key subsystems: sound, meaning, syntax, etc., work together in a child's mind to make a language what it is.  With the spoken language as the very foundation of their acquisition, children in every known society acquire these subsystems with ease. Nature vs. nurture arguments continue to have their advocates, but today the emphasis is on the understanding that language acquisition must be interactive. Berko Gleason says we have to build our brain and that language develops through interaction, as a cooperative event. Babies still in utero are already listening, even building bilingual brains when exposed to two languages.  Children acquire language not by imitating but by developing systematic knowledge, their own internal system.  They're actually creating language.  And that's the big excitement.


Unfolding Children’s Language 1

In her February 4, 2016 On Being podcast, Krista Tippett says that for this renowned pioneer of psycho-linguistics, the exploration of language is a frontier every bit as important and thrilling as exploring outer space or the deep sea. For Jean Berko Gleason, we are definitely animals, much like all other animals.  But what sets us apart is our self-consciousness, our consciousness of self and our ability to comment on it.  Language is our means of commenting. Already by the age of three or four we have an active vocabulary of some thousands of words and an intuitive grasp of complex grammatical structures that allow us to say things we'd never heard anyone else say.  For Berko Gleason, our innate predisposition to pay attention to little children is evidence of our desire to unfold ourselves, to learn from them.  A gifted polyglot herself, she found her life's work as a college senior when she took the course the Psychology of Language.  This was to become the foundation of psycho-linguistics.  Led by Roger Brown, this study began in a daycare on the Harvard campus and was carried further in the children's homes.   By taping, transcribing and analyzing children's use of language based on real kids in real life situations, the new science of psycho-linguistics was born. 


The Mystery of Learning 3

The human brain has long fascinated Science of Learning Institute's Barry Gordon. Knowing the basic biochemical building blocks of the human brain have been around for hundreds of millions of years, he sees the brain as an assemblage of very old technology.   His question: So what is it about the human brain and our culture that takes this ancient hardware and just 18 years or less of education and produces, somehow, a generalized learning machine that seems so much bigger than its parts?  Good question.  He sees the Science of Learning Institute as an opportunity to look at the bigger picture rather than having a bunch of individuals hacking at the problem separately.  He talks about sea slugs, Aplysia, who, if they can be said to think and learn, do so with neurons and biochemistry similar to what is found in the human brain.  While our evolutionary separation occurred long ago, the basic biochemistry has been conserved in so many species and gaps in biologic time.  For him that implies the magic of how we're different, which includes how we learn, has to be in how everything is put together, not in the parts themselves being so much better.  Dale Keiger, Brain in the News, October 2103.


The Mystery of Learning 2

With links on its website to some 64 researchers, the Science of Learning Institute's multidisciplinary approach is broad in scope.  Trying to be clear on what counts as learning is a fundamental step in such a science-based focus. For philosopher Steven Gross that means thinking about what it really means to have learned something. At the School of Education's Neuro-Education Initiative, first funded by the Brain Science Institute, Mariale Hardiman works from the perspective that teachers should know what the science is and have translations of it so they can use it in their classrooms.  Her co-founder of the Neuro-Education Initiative, Susan Magsamen, regrets that education and the science of learning are so disconnected.  She calls for an evidence-based approach to learning that will turn educators away from the latest new but untested ideas and toward work that results from outcomes research.  One such finding: Information about neuro and cognitive science has significantly improved teachers' beliefs in their own efficacy and the general efficacy of teaching.  This is critical knowledge because novice teachers are the most affected by this finding and they are at the highest risk of leaving the profession in their first five years of teaching.             Dale Keiger, Brain in the News, October 2013.


The Mystery of Learning 1

How do we learn to pronounce words?  Why are most of us, once past age 5, unable to learn to pronounce a foreign language like a native speaker?  Why are the human brain's associative skills impossible for computers to match? Researchers have been pondering such questions for a long time.  In 2011, Barry Gordon of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins joined with a network of people there focused on the ways and means of supporting mind/brain science.  By 2013 their brain science conversations shifted from neuroscience to a much broader focus on the science of learning.  While many life forms learn, none approach the learning ability of humans. Yet, the how of our learning has remained a mystery.  Learning how to learn about learning is now the aim. In our culture it takes 18 years of education and memory building to prepare someone to go forth and make a life. And then it still takes a lifetime of learning to learn how to live.  According to one theory of learning, when our brains learn something, they either create a new synaptic circuit or strengthen an existing one.  Then, the ability to recall what you have learned is actually the reactivation of that chemical-electrical circuit.  Working at the cellular and molecular level, Richard Huganir calls learning an interesting biological problem.  A memory has to be physically encoded in your brain and has to be stable for decades.  But the brain is not a computer circuit.  It's not hard-wired. It's made of proteins and lipids, and all these things turn over in the brain and get degraded.  If a memory is really the synaptic circuit, how do you maintain that circuit within this very mushy, dynamic brain?     Dale Keiger, Brain in the News, October 2013.