Linguistic abilities of babies

Neuroscience with its impressive array of technologies continues to plumb the depths of the human brain and throw up fascinating new results, not all of which can be adequately explained through the Yoga psychology model, which relies on occult insights handed down by Yogis, both ancient and modern.   In a recent TED talk, neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl described an intriguing anomaly that she and her colleagues uncovered while investigating the linguistic abilities of 6-10 month old babies, which we briefly discuss here.

According to the latest neuroscience research, babies at birth have a universal capacity to discern phonetic contrasts in all the world’s languages but between the critical period of 6-10 months, this capacity begins to decrease and after the first year, the infant is primed only to acquire the native language to which it has been exposed.  The current reasoning is that this restriction occurs because during the critical period of 6-10 months, the brain becomes shaped by exposure to a  specific language.  While investigating this narrowing in perceptual of learning skills, Kuhl and her colleagues decide to expose 6-10 month old American babies to a second language (Mandarin or Spanish) and hit upon an anomaly.  They discovered that the babies’ brains were indeed able to discern the root sounds of a second language but only if it was taught by a human tutor; if the same sounds were relayed through a video or audio feed, the babies failed to learn.

Why does a baby with rudimentary communication skills need a human being to learn another language?   Neuroscientists may ascribe it to mirror neurons but is there a “spiritual” or non-reductionist explanation – something which relies on the deeper and occult model of consciousness?  In the absence of any original spiritual insight, it is unwise to speculate but it is certainly tempting to do so!  Maybe the answer to this anomaly lies in the variety of epistemic methods of consciousness enumerated under yoga psychology (For more, see the article on the Four epistemic methods of consciousness)

Under the model of Integral (yoga) psychology outlined by Sri Aurobindo, the quickest and most comprehensive form of knowledge acquisition is called “Knowledge by identity” where you identify with another person’s consciousness and absorb his/her knowledge instantly (i.e. like a video transmission).  This form of knowledge is infinitely preferable to the conventional form of brain-driven cognitive learning exemplified in the sense-read-think-imagine-and-consolidate cycle.  On one occasion, the Mother Mirra Alfassa had remarked that babies less than two years old are very conscious but they just don’t have the instrumentation to express themselves (Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 12, p 195).   It is possible that babies at birth are innately endowed with “Knowledge by Identity” but as the brain develops, these intuitive abilities get shrouded by the incrustations of the growing intellect.  This may be the reason why babies are able to discern sounds spoken by a human tutor (through conscious identification) but can’t do the same with an audio or video feed.

Whatever the elucidation to this anomaly, Patricia Kuhl‘s TED talk video is quite delightful to watch, because she seems to have a knack for conveying complicated science to a lay audience without indulging in unnecessary jargon.

See also: “Cracking the Speech Code: Language and the Infant Brain” – supporting textual material from a talk given by Patricia Kuhl

Here is the video without further ado…

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10 thoughts on “Linguistic abilities of babies

  1. Neil

    I am a developmental therapist working with toddlers, children and adolescents on the autism spectrum. I also happen to be well versed starting from the age of 17, now 50, in many of Sri Aurobindo’s writings. Especially, Savitri and essays thereof as I too am a poet. My epic poem, A Tale of Neshua and Myrian was strong inspired by him not as guru but a deeper intuitive understanding or the origins of spoken language, that as well as some of the same resonance, if I dare say, of poets or poetic mantric passages that drew Aurobindo as well. This also led to a graduate thesis begun some years ago, but never completed, entitled the “Empathic or poetic basis of speech.”

    In any case, as a developmental therapist that facilitates what we term the functional-emotional developmental milestones, largely non-verbal or prelinguistic facial-bodily gesturing which forms the basis dyadic or two-way communication; symbolic representational emergence (or ideas) apart from fixed modalities of perception (e.g., primitive all or nothing responses) and expressive (spoken) language, or the organisation of emotional-patternment or expressive communication, or defined as spoken language proper.

    What has been defined as the mirror neuron system does indeed play a central role in that organization. However, the mirror-neuron system is not a single system but as current research has shown distributed throughout different areas of the brain. It is essential in establishing pleasurable two-way joint attention (e.g., I see what you are doing and you see what I am doing and there is a certain corresponding resonance or feeling, empathic-feeling if you will associated with that, immediately, directly (without prethought or forethought). It is that “connection” which we can define in a certain sense as “knowledge by identity” or direct empathic-cognition. Thus, in a certain sense I encode or internalize what you are doing as I am watching your actions.

    Well, this must be further related to and internalized (otherwise it is just a beginning foundation). In other words, what we see as self-other must be further connected to our own individual voluntary actions or praxis or the executive functions of the brain
    (ideation, I see it. Motor-planning or the orchestration of our physicality, affect-sensory-motor planning, knowing what muscles do I have to use to obtain an action or more comprehensively to sustain back-and-forth interaction; and execution, putting it all together. Now, in “normal” or so-called, “typical development” this develops on time and more or less seamlessly, maturationally and constitutionally, if proper caregiver nurturance is in place.

    In developmental challenges and the children/families I see (e.g., autism spectrum disorders), this requires that this be cultivated otherwise it does not happen or at best in a splintered fashion 1) Pleasurable nurturance or joint attention. 2) Affect reciprocal circles of caregiver/child communication with rich non-verbal gestures and sounds 3) The emergence of a joie d vivre of ideas (or symbols) apart from fixed representation and then 4) The natural emergence of spoken language, as defined.
    All this is physical. My point to all this and if Aurobindo was here today he would most probably agree, is that there is no physical apart from the subtle physical. We are talking about interpenetration at many levels (and I hesitate to say levels as they are not hard and fixed and tagged as in a Cartesian headache of deus ex machina or the spirit or homonculous winding the gears of the body, lol but seamlessly or need to be re-constituted in a more seamless fashion). There is no need (and in fact it is an error of double-blind vision to assert a “knowledge of identity” apart from the physical. (in fact it is a primitive arcane way of speaking). It has never been the separation we have all imagined, as we would like to ponder a spiritual as beautifully distinct and apart from a material axis. This is not the case! All it does is to confound the soul and dumb down the real scientific and more importantly the scientific emotional or empathic-developmental understanding of caregiver nurturance based practices (not only in our species but all species during the course of evolution) which leads to higher forms of organization and Art and a deeper intuitive understanding of the play and patternment of language (or the empathic basis of language). Spoken language is one potential translation at any given moment from unspoken or non-verbal Intent.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Neil: There is no need (and in fact it is an error of double-blind vision to assert a “knowledge of identity” apart from the physical. (in fact it is a primitive arcane way of speaking). It has never been the separation we have all imagined, as we would like to ponder a spiritual as beautifully distinct and apart from a material axis. This is not the case!

      Assuming I have understood your comment correctly… I think you assumed that I was committing the Cartesian error of separating the physical (“mirror neurons”) from spiritual (“knowledge by identity”) aspects. That was not the intent. I was attempting to encapsulate the materialist neuroscientific explanation into something based on the larger phenomenon of consciousness, which we may say falls in the field of yoga psychology/integral psychology/transpersonal psychology (whatever you want to call it)

      Neil: It has never been the separation we have all imagined, as we would like to ponder a spiritual as beautifully distinct and apart from a material axis.

      Agree, and that is what Sri Aurobindo says as well. I quote:

      There is in fact no gap in man’s sheaths. It is a gamut or scale ascending from the lowest to the highest plane; and the principle of each is repeated in all. Thus all is in each. Otherwise the world cannot go on. There are four other bodies different from the material physical body which we have. (Purani. Evening Talks, First Series, p 230)

  2. Neil


    Thanks for your clarification. I quite agree with your comments here. Also the last paragraph from Purani Evening Talks I have not before seen, good excerpt!

  3. Sandeep Post author

    Update on the research on linguistic abilities of babies

    In a new study, the researchers report that the brains of babies raised in bilingual households show a longer period of being flexible to different languages, especially if they hear a lot of language at home. The researchers also show that the relative amount of each language — English and Spanish — babies were exposed to affected their vocabulary as toddlers.

    The study, published online Aug. 17 in Journal of Phonetics, is the first to measure brain activity throughout infancy and relate it to language exposure and speaking ability.

    “The bilingual brain is fascinating because it reflects humans’ abilities for flexible thinking — bilingual babies learn that objects and events in the world have two names, and flexibly switch between these labels, giving the brain lots of good exercise,” said Patricia Kuhl, co-author of the study and co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

    See more:

  4. Sandeep Post author

    Ancient studies conducted on first language acquisition

    Psammeticus, an Egyptian Pharoah during the 7th century BC, believed language was inborn and that children isolated from birth from any linguistic influence would develop the language they had been born with. He isolated two children, who were reported to have spoken a few words of Phyrgian, an IE language of present day Turkey. Psammeticus believed that this was the first, or original, language.

    In the 15th century King James V of Scotland performed a similar experiment; the children were reported to have spoken good Hebrew.

    These first studies of human language tended to be concerned with the origin of the oldest, or first, language (They were phylogenetic), and were only secondarily concerned with the precise way in which individual infants acquire speech. True studies of language development in the infant (ontogenetic studies) came later.

    Akbar, a 16th cent. Mogul emperor of India, desired to learn whether language was innate or acquired through exposure to the speech of adults. He believed that language was learned by people listening to each other and therefore a child could not develop language alone. So he ordered a house built for two infants and stationed a mute nurse to care for them. The children did not acquire speech, which seemed to prove Akbar’s hypothesis that language is acquired and does not simply emerge spontaneously in the absence of exposure to speech.


    An alleged experiment carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

    The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged “foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”[3]


    If you are not exposed to language during childhood, you may not be able to learn any : the case of Genie Wiley

    The critical period hypothesis was first proposed by Montreal neurologist Wilder Penfield and co-author Lamar Roberts in a 1959 paper Speech and Brain Mechanisms, and was popularised by Eric Lenneberg in 1967 with Biological Foundations of Language.[1]

    Lenneberg states that there are maturational constraints on the time a first language can be acquired. First language acquisition relies on neuroplasticity. If language acquisition does not occur by puberty, some aspects of language can be learnt but full mastery cannot be achieved.[2] This was called the “critical period hypothesis.”

    An interesting example of this is the case of Genie. A thirteen-year-old victim of lifelong child abuse, Genie had been kept strapped to a potty chair and wearing diapers. She appeared to be entirely without language. Her father had judged her retarded at birth and had chosen to isolate her, and so she had remained until her discovery.

    It was an ideal opportunity to test the theory that a nurturing environment could somehow make up for a total lack of language past the age of 12. She was unable to acquire language completely, although the degree to which she acquired language is disputed


  5. Sandeep Post author

    Infants Possess Intermingled Senses
    from the Scientific American Mind » January 2012

    What if every visit to the museum was the equivalent of spending time at the philharmonic? For painter Wassily Kandinsky, that was the experience of painting: colors triggered sounds. Now a study from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that we are all born synesthetes like Kandinsky, with senses so joined that stimulating one reliably stimulates another.

    The work, published in the August issue of Psychological Science, has become the first experimental confir­mation of the infant-synesthesia hy­pothesis—which has existed, unproved, for almost 20 years.

    Researchers presented infants and adults with images of repeating shapes (either circles or triangles) on a split-color background: one side was red or blue, and the other side was yellow or green. If the infants had shape-color asso­ciations, the scientists hypoth­esized, the shapes would affect their color preferences. For in­stance, some infants might look significantly longer at a green back­ground with circles than at the same green background with triangles. Absent synesthesia, no such dif­ference would be visible.

    The study confirmed this hunch. Infants who were two and three months old showed significant shape-color associations. By eight months the preference was no longer pronounced, and in adults it was gone altogether.

  6. Neil Samuels

    “The study confirmed this hunch. Infants who were two and three months old showed significant shape-color associations. By eight months the preference was no longer pronounced, and in adults it was gone altogether.

    The more important implications of this work may lie beyond synesthesia, says lead author Katie Wagner, a psychologist at U.C.S.D. The finding provides insight into how babies learn about the world more generally. “In­fants may perceive the world in a way that’s fundamentally different from adults,” Wagner says. As we age, she adds, we narrow our focus, perhaps gaining an edge in cognitive speed as the sensory symphony quiets down.”

    Interesting how the researcher puts forth the interpretation as “…we narrow our focus perhaps gaining an edge in cognitive speed as the sensory symphony quiets down.” I am a poet and Developmental special educator working with both typical and non-typical infants and toddlers many of whom have been diagnosed (often misdiagnosed) with ASD (autism spectrum disorders). I would venture to say that this is not what happens at all. This is one particular [albeit valid] cultural interpretation of how we are defining “cognitive speed” or refined cognitive discrimination and intelligence. In fact, synesthesia or “the sensory symphony” allows (points towards) a greater potentially combined (but largely non-utilized or under-utilized) intuitive and emotional [empathic] intelligence.

    However, a key term we should bear in mind is our definition,of “progress”, here synonymous with a narrowing and pruning of emerging intellectual focus,through a process of maturation as we are compelled to organize and discriminate the many necessary mundane details of life which thus defines the adult primate humans’ sense of “expanding cognitive intelligence.” However, I would rather say as we “decidedly” find it too challenging to hold that [other] multidimensional focus. ,As we maturationally [decidedly] increasingly narrow and prune our focus (i.e., as we feel overwhelmed), this faculty of perception or more expansive utilization of the brain/nervous system (synesthesia) begins to rather dull (atrophy). Some individuals (from childhood through adulthood) such as gifted poets, artists and musicians are able to maintain (for numerous reasons) that panoply, that extra superordinate or or suprasense of perceptual awareness and are able to translate it according to their Art.

    I would maintain that ‘Savitri’, for example, is one of the more fluent and greater manifestations of that “Art.” It embodies a deeper material or, if you will, a fourth dimensional sense. A multi-perceptual awareness; a clairaudience and clairvoyant seeing which symbolically [psychically] transforms the very nature of articulation and language itself, as “normally” conceived, To some including myself, it is palpably felt-and seen,upon reading. (as well as some passages from other poets who in moments of direct inspired seeing and-feeling are able to capture, translate, higher planes of illumined, intuitive or the overmental vision..for example, Wordsworth).

    However, the paradoxical key here is that one has to have visited those planes and “felt” their visceral sense, their truth or planes of seeing and lived experience from whence they came or if not of the same predilection of hearing fob it off into the waste paper basket of fanciful abstraction or mere intellectualization, as many a critic in his [Aurobindo’s] time accused. Instead, ‘Savitri’ can in fact be construed as a deeper concretization of the senses that are otherwise latent or at best have only been partially glimpsed…. It is a fuller expression of a largely unknown or unexamined synesthesia. In any case, there is a parallel here and it points to a deeper empathic or emotional intelligence, which doesn’t diffuse, deny or delimit the growth of cognitive intelligence (as normally conceived) but integrates and suffuses to higher emotional intelligence. It is indeed there as a wider potential in the species for further transformation – to deepen and transform more subtle ways of seeing, latent potential or evolution as Aurobindo well knew.

    Also there is another link in the historical linguistic literature that is so critical and addresses my point here and which I was in the process of developing a thesis around a number of years ago entitled, “The Poetic or Empathic basis of Speech.” See Benjamin Lee Whorf’s last chapter entitled Language and Reality in the classic 1956 ‘Language, Thought and Realty.’ Unfortunately, it has been overlooked. Here [in 1941 B. Whorf] is discussing the Sanskrit terms “arupa and rupa” (i.e., the mantric nature of patternment of language) and which integrally includes discussion or mention of synesthesia. Essentially, what is revealed by the higher-aesthetic intuitive patternment of perception/language and the conscious manipulation of its Art is not something added or different (or even for that matter lost) but are the more subtle aspects and empathic or emotional basis of intelligence that is present but again not (necessarily) utilized, but in the cases of certain poets greatly utilized. In the case of Aurobindo profoundly utilized. What is there as potential or latency or partial revealing can be deeply formed than meets the aforesaid adult surface sense. A different argument can be made that the loss of this awareness as a toddler (i.e., synesthesia) actually defines a homeostasis or regression and not a deepening progression of the human spirit and intelligence.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Thanks for highlighting the last paragraph of the article which I forgot to cite. I quite agree that “loss of this awareness as a toddler (i.e., synesthesia) actually defines a homeostasis or regression and not a deepening progression of the human spirit and intelligence.” I guess it is an inevitable consequence of living in an age where intellect, reason, clarity and logic are valued over sensory symphony, and where interaction occurs more through written words that spoken words.

      I was able to read the last chapter of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s book ‘Language, Thought and Realty’ that you mentioned. The book is available online. I am not sure if Whorf’s interpretation of Nama-Rupa is accurate. He seems to equate Rupa with segmentation of space and Nama with lexation(lexical side). He says “Nama, ‘name,’ is not language or the linguistic order, but only one level in it, the level of the process of
      “lexation” or of giving words (names) to parts of the whole manifold of experience, parts which are thereby made to stand out in a semifictitious isolation.”

      Nama is more like the idea behind an object (its characteristic vibration or abstract purpose in creation that differentiates it from other objects) whereas Rupa is the external form that we perceive through our senses. Even here, there is a divergence between Buddhism and Vedanta (Shankara, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo) over the interpretation. There is a paper by Alex Wayman “A Study of the Vedantic and Buddhist Theory of Nama-rupa” on the subject. See the wikipedia page on Namarupa for a short summary.

      Terminology aside, Whorf is right on the mark on his other observations. He (p 248) says “This view implies that what I have called patterns are basic in a really cosmic sense, and that patterns form wholes, akin to the Gestalten of psychology, which are embraced in larger wholes in continual progression. Thus the cosmic picture has a serial or hierarchical character, that of a progression of planes or levels. Lacking recognition of such serial order, different sciences chop segments, as it were, out of the world, segments which perhaps cut across the direction of the natural levels, or stop short when, upon reaching a major change of level, the phenomena become of quite different type, or pass out of the ken of the older observational methods.”

      Whorf (p 258) wrote “Sentences, not words, are the essence of speech, just as equations and functions, and not bare numbers, are the real meat of mathematics.” This is the gist of the 5th century Indian grammarian Bhartṛhari‘s theory of Sphota.

      Whorf (p 248) also discusses the planes of linguistics: “But in the science of linguistics, the facts of the linguistic domain compel recognition of serial planes, each explicitly given by an order of patterning observed…First, the plane “below” the strictly linguistic phenomena is a physical, acoustic one, phenomena wrought of sound waves; then comes a level of patterning in rippling muscles and speech organs, the physiological-phonetic plane; then the phonemic plane, patterning that makes a systematic set of consonants, vowels, accents, tones, etc. for each language; then the morphophonemic plane…then the plane of morphology…then the further planes still…”

      These planes from the transcendental down to the guttural are covered under the theory of Vedic Vak

  7. Sandeep Post author

    Language Learning Begins in Utero, Study Finds

    The study tested newborns on two sets of vowel sounds — 17 native language sounds and 17 foreign language sounds, said Kuhl. The researchers tested the babies’ interest in the vowel sounds based on how long and often they sucked on a pacifier. Half of the infants heard their native language vowels, and the other half heard the foreign vowels. “Each suck will produce a vowel until the infant pauses, and then the new suck will produce the next vowel sound,” said Kuhl.

    In both countries Sweden and USA, the babies listening to the foreign vowels sucked more, than those listening to their native tongue regardless of how much postnatal experience they had. This indicated to researchers that they were learning the vowel sounds in utero.

    “These little ones had been listening to their mother’s voice in the womb, and particularly her vowels for ten weeks. The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain,” said Kuhl. “At birth, they are apparently ready for something novel.”


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