The Linguistic Genius of Babies

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Patricia Kuhl is a name I came across when I read the book Brain Rules for Baby. She studies how we learn language as babies and looks at the ways our brains form around language acquisition.

About Patricia Kuhl

Patricia Kuhl is co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington. She’s internationally recognized for her research on early language and brain development, and studies that show how young children learn. Kuhl’s work has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the brain. It has implications for critical periods in development, for bilingual education and reading readiness, for developmental disabilities involving language, and for research on computer understanding of speech.

Brain Rules - Linguistic Genius

Linguistic Geniuses and Citizens of the World

Babies can learn any language that they are exposed to. Because of their ability to learn any language in the first year of life, Kuhl calls babies “citizens of the world”. It doesn’t matter what culture they are born into, as long as they have the right exposure to any language, they can learn how to speak it. At what point do they lose this ability? Based on Patricia Kuhl’s research, as early as their first birthday.

Learning a second language is second nature to babies, but new research finds the ability may begin to fade as early as the first birthday.


If you want to teach your child a second language, the ideal time to begin is during your baby’s first year of life. After the first year, your child loses the ability to discern sounds from languages other than the ones that are heard on a regular basis. This is because babies are taking statistics on the linguistic sounds that they commonly hear. Sounds they hear often are important and preserved. Sounds they do not hear are forgotten.

A good example of this can be seen in the difference between English and Japanese. In English, the “ra” and “la” sounds are important, but not so in Japanese. When Japanese babies pass their first year, they start to lose their discernment for the difference between “ra” and “la” because they do not hear it in their language. Similar occurrences happen for all babies across all languages as they prepare for the language they need to learn.

If babies are exposed to multiple languages in their first year, they will preserve the ability to discern all the relevant sounds for those languages. Beyond their first year, they begin to lose this ability.

Babies Need Live Teachers

At this stage, you may be tempted to play audio recordings of various languages for your baby to listen to. Unfortunately, Patricia Kuhl’s research found that babies don’t pay attention to audio recordings, or even video recordings of people speaking. To learn a language, babies need to hear it from a live person.

we wondered what role the human being played in this learning exercise. So we ran another group of babies in which the kids got the same dosage, the same 12 sessions, but over a television set. And another group of babies who had just audio exposure and looked at a teddy bear on the screen. What did we do to their brains? What you see here is the audio result — no learning whatsoever — and the video result — no learning whatsoever. It takes a human being for babies to take their statistics. The social brain is controlling when the babies are taking their statistics.

Patricia Kuhl

If you want your baby to learn a second language, playing audio recordings or watching DVDs won’t work. Even if the video program shows a person speaking the language, Kuhl’s research has shown that it doesn’t work. The important consideration is having a live person to speak the words your baby hears. For families teaching their mother tongue, this is easy enough but what if you wanted to teach your child a language you do not speak? Would it work if a non-speaking person repeats the words spoken from an audio/video recording? Food for thought…

The First Seven Years

babies and children are geniuses until they turn seven, and then there’s a systematic decline. After puberty, we fall off the map.

Patricia Kuhl

According to Kuhl, the critical period of learning lies in the first seven years of life. The importance of the first seven years is also highlighted by early childhood development experts, such as Maria Montessori, Glenn Doman, and Shichida. Sadly, once we’re past our teenage years, it’s all downhill. This is all the more reason to focus on early childhood education.

Watch Patricia Kuhl’s TED talk:

What Does This Mean for Early Learning?

I realise that this is disappointing news for many parents hoping to tap into their baby’s sponge-like learning abilities and let them pick up an extra language or two. If we can’t speak the language, does that mean there is no hope for our children to learn that language? Before we write it off, I would like to share the story of Bella – she was four years old in this video and she could speak seven languages.

After watching all that, one might wonder if Bella was some kind of child prodigy. Bella’s mother, Yulia, believes that Bella is no different to any other child. So how did Yulia manage to teach Bella so many languages?

The full details can be accessed from the following links:

Here are a few of the salient points:

  • Start as early as possible. The earlier, the easier it is for the child. When it’s easy, they enjoy the process more.
  • When working with babies, speak as much as possible in the languages you want your child to learn.
  • In Yulia’s family, they began with two languages first – Russian and English. When they saw Bella’s interest to learn was growing, they added more languages bit by bit – a new language after every few months.
  • They started with languages they knew, then hired tutors to teach Bella other languages.
  • No mixing of languages – particularly not at the beginning. For instance they would spend one day in one language, then another in another language. If they were on an English day, they did not speak any other languages except English. If it was Russian, they did not speak English.
  • Equal exposure to each language.
  • Make it fun – use play like activities.
  • I think it is also worth noting that Bella had a positive real world feedback to her language learning. At the playground, she was able to speak to almost all the children because she understood their languages. She also saw that she couldn’t speak to the children whose languages she did not speak and that motivated her to want to learn the languages she could not converse in.
  • Combining reading learning with language learning because it adds another sense to the learning – sight and hearing instead of hearing alone.
  • For teaching reading, she used Doman’s Method.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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