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Brief exposure to Mandarin can help American infants learn Chinese

DENVER - Researchers have found a way to reverse what appears to be a universal decline in foreign language speech perception that begins toward the end of the first year of life.

University of Washington neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl reported today that 9-month-old American infants who were exposed to Mandarin Chinese for less than five hours in a laboratory setting were able to distinguish phonetic elements of that language. It is the first experimental demonstration of phonetic learning from natural exposure to language under controlled laboratory conditions, she said.

In a companion study headed by Kuhl, another group of American infants was exposed to the same Mandarin material using a professionally produced DVD or audiotape but showed no ability to distinguish phonetic units of that language.

"The findings indicate that infants can extract phonetic information from first-time foreign-language exposure in a relatively short period of time at 9 months of age, but only if the language is produced by a human, suggesting that social interaction is an important component of language learning," said Kuhl.

She presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science as part of a symposium on "Learning to Communicate What Children Can't Afford to Miss."

Kuhl, who is co-director of the UW's Center for Mind, Brain & Learning and a professor of speech and hearing sciences, has shown in earlier work that children are born "citizens of the world" with the ability to distinguish among the sounds used in all languages. But sometime in the second six months of life infants begin to concentrate on learning the sounds of their native language and lose their ability to distinguish the sounds important to foreign languages. This same inability is why many adults have difficulty learning a foreign language and tend only to discriminate the sounds of their native language. In the two studies, infants were
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Contact: Joel Schwarz
joels@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
17-Feb-2003


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