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Neural and Behavioral Aspects of Early Language Development

Presenter: Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph.D.

Language "Mapping" by the Infant Brain: New Methods and Theoretical Principles

At the forefront of research on language are new data demonstrating young children's strategies in the early acquisition of language. The strategies are unexpected and unpredicted by historical views. The data show that infants and young children perceptually "map" critical aspects of ambient language in the early years of life, resulting in perceptual strategies (and corresponding neural networks) that are increasingly dedicated to the processing of a single language. Infants detect the statistical and abstract properties of speech through exposure to ambient language. Linguistic experience alters infants' perception of speech, warping perception in a way that enhances native-language speech processing. Research in four additional areas is contributing to our understanding of language learning. Studies examining infant-directed speech, used virtually universally when adults address infants and children, demonstrate that it is structured to enhance language learning. Brain imaging studies, using EEG, MEG, and fMRI, are revealing the temporal and structural aspects of language processing by the brain, which in turn suggest new views of the critical period for language. Computational modeling of children's language acquisition, using biologically inspired neural networks, is revealing the aspects of language input that may assist infants' language mapping. Finally, studies focused on the early precursors of language in developmentally delayed children are revealing the nature of, and potential treatments for, language impairment in children with autism, dyslexia, and specific language impairment. The new research on one of humans' greatest achievements, language, now promises breakthroughs both in basic theory and application.


Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl is the William P. and Ruth Gerberding Professor at the University of Washington and the Co-Director of the UW Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning.

Her research has focused on the study of language and the processing of language by the brain. The work has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the mechanisms of perception. The work has broad implications for critical periods in development, for bilingual education and reading readiness, for early brain development, and for research on computer understanding of spoken language.

In 1997, Dr. Kuhl was awarded the Silver Medal of the Acoustical Society of America. In 1998, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And in 1999, she became President of the Acoustical Society of America, and received the University of Washington's Faculty Lectureship Award.

Dr. Kuhl was one of six scientists invited to the White House in 1997 to make a presentation at President and Mrs. Clinton's Conference on "Early Learning and the Brain." In 2001, she was one of three scientists invited to make a presentation at President and Mrs. Bush's White House Summit on "Early Cognitive Development: Ready to Read, Ready to Learn." Her work has been widely covered by the press. In 1999, she co-authored The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn (Morrow Press).

Dr. Kuhl appeared in the NOVA series entitled "The Mind," in the "The Power of Ideas" on PBS, and most recently in "The Secret Life of the Brain," also on PBS. She has discussed her research findings on early learning and the brain on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, CNN, and in the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek.