The Scientific American Mind Matters blog is running an article by me on language learning. The moderator of this blog, Jonah Lehrer, asks scientists to pick what they think is one of the most exciting recent papers and blog about it.
Here’s how I set up the problem:
Many people assume children learn to talk by copying what they hear. In other words, babies listen to the words adults use and the situations in which they use them and imitate accordingly. Behaviorism, the scientific approach that dominated American cognitive science for the first half of the 20th century, made exactly this argument. This “copycat” theory can’t explain why toddlers aren’t as loquacious adults, however. After all, when was the last time you heard literate adults express themselves in one-word sentences (“bottle,” “doggie”) or in short phrases such as, “Mommy open box.”
The rest of the post describes what I think is one of the most important recent language experiments and how it addresses this paradox.