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This is the blog of Jeff Barson. I'm currently running HireVue Labs, former Director at Sendside, founder of Surface Medical, Nimble, Medspa MD, Freelance MD, Frontdesk, Uncommon, and Wild Blue... angel investor and startup advisor. Oh, and I'm a artist. More >>


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    Why toddlers suddenly learn to talk.

    Kids become chatterboxes within months of barely being able to speak a few words. How come?

    Children do not need any specialised learning to suddenly improve their vocabularies. Instead, their behaviour can be described by a simple mathematical rule of thumb.

    Parents become familiar with the so-called “word spurt”, the slightly disconcerting stage of a child’s life when they go from hardly talking to suddenly uttering hundreds of new words, sometimes after hearing them only once. (This can be disconcerting for parents whose children are suddenly uttering profanities like a angry truck-driver.)

    At 18 months the average child can say 50 words, but by age two, they have learned up to 350 words; half a year later their vocabulary has doubled to 600.

    Scientists have proposed various theories to explain children’s language land-grab. Perhaps learning a few basic words helps a child learn others. The theory of “naming insight”, for instance, suggests that at around 18 months children suddenly realise that each object has a specific name. (It’s not until around two that a child learns that when they cover their eyes and ‘hide’, that you can still see them.)

    Another theory, called “fast mapping”, suggests that children quickly understand that groups of objects are related, and therefore they learn unfamiliar words describing objects within familiar groups more quickly.

    Characteristic curve

    Of course, there may be a much simpler explanation. The acceleration in a child’s learning may inevitably happen due to the way most languages are structured.

    All languages contain a characteristic distribution and pattern of words. Where most are of medium difficultly to learn, there are a few that are either very easy, or very difficult. Children always learn a number of words in parallel. These parameters have been factored into computational models which simulate how long it takes to learn 10,000 new words.

    Guess what? The simulation the model produces the same characteristic acceleration in learning. Essentially learning one new word makes learning another new word even easier. This allows a child to move through words of medium difficulty more quickly since their learned in parallel. Acceleration is an unavoidable by-product of variation in difficulty. (It’s a network effect.)

    Of course computer modeling isn’t the real world and may not accurately get to the heart of while kids learn language so amazingly fast, but adults don’t learn as quickly and don’t show a similar acceleration in their language learning.

    Reader Comments (15)

    It has never made any sense to me and I have raised four. It seems like once they get over the first hurdle, say mother points and sounds a word, they rapidly get the connection between sound and pointing. Its the first connection that is the key.

    01.18 | Unregistered Commentercameron

    Due to long exposure with their surrounding that causes them to speak?
    Nice explaination over there :D

    Anyway, thanks for your post.

    I agree; children learn language faster after figuring out the relationship between pointing at an object and having a sound associated with that object.

    On the other hand, computer simulations experience that burst of speed because of the increased connections between words. Since words are represented as nodes and the nodes are connected by edges to form a graph in computer science theory, as the number of nodes increases the number of edges will also increase, thus speeding up the learning process.

    I think it's mostly about understanding that sound and meaning belong together. At first it's just babbling (making sounds) trying to imitate their parents, but once children understand the communication aspect, that is a great motivation for them.

    Anyway, it's a very interesting article. It makes me think about what the differences are between learning a first language as a child and learning foreign languages in school or elsewhere. If we could mimic a child's learning process, we could be fluent in several languages. I actually know one or two people learning languages like that, just can't figure out how they do that.

    08.4 | Unregistered CommenterColin

    You are right Cameron and I totally agree on what you said. Nice comment.

    Well it's like learning a new language, when you learn it you are ambitious to speak it more often. I think that is the main reason of what's going on.

    My two year old is a non-stop talking machine!The only times she would stop asking or talking is when she is eating or off to dreamland.But when she starts dreaming she seems to utter alot about her dreams LOL...

    09.23 | Unregistered CommenterBhelle

    So it seems like the human brain has some sort of exponential potential curve as it develops, especially when it comes to verbalizing. Too bad it doesn't keep going. I think my verbalizations skills leveled off when I was 12.

    Once a child starts blurting out words, it is appreciated by those around and is pampered. Guess that also helps kids to become chatterboxes.

    10.23 | Unregistered CommenterAttorney

    Its really nice to have these chatterboxes...I love the language they speak..

    10.24 | Unregistered Commentermike

    Thanks for the post.

    It has always amazed me how fast a small child learns. They do grow more in the first 12 months than in any other 12 month period.

    10.27 | Unregistered CommenterAmy@bp

    I was really happy when my daughter started talking and blurting out little sentences. 16 years later I still long for the old days!

    11.25 | Unregistered CommenterRickC

    I have a three year old daughter, and the rate at which she learns new words amazes me. I told my wife, just today, that it seems our daughter never forgets ANYTHING. She can be so descriptive that it is just unbelievable. I have never seen the mathematics of children learning new words before. The rate at which they double their vocabulary is amazing.

    It is an amazing process. I have a 3.5 year old, and just in the past month or so he is having this verbal explosion, and saying things that we have never heard before, and using more complex words and sentences - all apparently out of the blue - like he just woke up and said "I think I will be talking today."

    My wife and I have had to attempt to clean up our language around the house too - he has learned a few 'naughty words" - oops!

    12.10 | Unregistered CommenterDansko

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