How can rhythm help us learn a language?

How do we learn new words? Can babies learn language from inside the womb? At what age can we first understand grammar?
02 June 2014

Interview with 

Susan Richards, Language therapist & PhD student in the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, Cambridge University


Baby's feet


How do we learn new words? Can babies learn language from inside the womb? At what age can we first understand grammar? When you think about how complicated it is, it's amazing how young we can first learn to speak. But, not all children learn to speak at the same age. Ginny Smith spoke to Susan Richards, a language therapist and PhD student in the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, Cambridge, who works on children with language impairments.

Susan - So, these are children who otherwise are fairly typical. They're developing normally.  They learn to walk at the kind of time that you would expect, but when it comes to language, to understanding the words that people are saying to them to try to say words themselves, starting to put words together, trying to speak in sentences, learning new words.  They find that very difficult and you start to see them falling behind where maybe there are more typically developing peers are.

Ginny -   Do we know what's actually going on in our brains when we're learning language?

Susan -   There are lots of different things that the brain has to do in order to learn language.  So, it has to be able to hear the words that are coming in, it has to process those sounds and it has to start to recognise the patterns in the speech signal that it's hearing, start to be able to find out where the words are, where the phrases are, find out where grammatical structures are that enables us to make sense of what we hear.  It's those aspects of this speech signal that we think that some of these children might be struggling with, might be struggling with identifying and that's preventing them from efficiently learning language.

Ginny -   How do you work out what elements of all that really complicated process is the bit that the children are struggling with?

Susan -   What we're looking at in particular is what's important very early on in language learning.  So, Richard was talking about babies and we know that babies are learning language right from inside the womb.  They're responding to the sounds they can hear through the womb and that's particularly things like intonation patterns that they can hear their mother's voice going up and down, rising and falling with pitch.  And we also know that they can hear the rhythm.  So, they're kind of bup, bup, bupabupa kind of sound that comes through.  We know that they're responding to that straightaway and so that immediately as they're born, they can recognise the difference between languages based on those rhythmic properties alone.

Ginny -   How do you know that they're hearing this in the womb?  You can't ask a baby in the womb what it's listening to, can you?

Susan -   Well, because of the fact that when they're newborn, they can discriminate between those things.  They can hear the difference between languages which vary in their rhythmic pattern.  So, if you have a language like English which is called a stress-timed language, that's a very clear, buba,dadada dadada kind of feel to it as opposed to a language like French which is what's more syllable-timed, we have much more even dadadadada kind of feel to it and you can do experiments, as Richard does, with very young babies that show that they can hear the difference between those patterns.

Ginny -   So, language is so much to do with rhythm.  Is that one of the things that you think might be a problem for people with language difficulties?

Susan -   Well, that's the particular that we're interested in at the moment and it's particularly to do with thinking about the patterns of syllables and the patterns of stressed syllables that you hear in language because we know from very early studies that children are using these patterns, these regularities that they can hear to find out where the words are to work out where the grammar is.  It's one of the cues that they can use.  So for example, we're used to thinking of words as isolated units.  They're the bits that are separated on a page by the white sections.  But spoken languages isn't like that, it goes on a continuous stream.  And so, a baby has to find out where are the white bits if you like, where are those word sections?  We know that they use things like stress patterns in order to be able to determine where the words are.  And so, we think that if children are less able to hear those stress patterns if, they're not able to process those aspects of the speech signal as efficiently then that will prevent them using that as a cue.  So, they're missing out one of the important bits of the signal which enables other children to learn language more effectively and more efficiently than perhaps that they're able to.

Ginny -   That's one of the hardest things I find as an adult about trying to learn a foreign language.  I'm not very good at any foreign language.  I speak a tiny little bit of French, but if someone says one word to me in French, I've got a much better chance of working out what it was than if they say a whole sentence to me, just because it all seems to run together.  So, is that what learning English would be like or learning a first language would be like for children who have these problems?

Susan -   Yeah, absolutely and so, what you would want to do kind of in terms of intervention is to make sure that you're maximising that child's chance to pick up on all of these language cues by simplifying your language.  And we're particularly looking at rhythmic and entrainment.  So, looking at, if you make a very structured rhythmic pattern to a language, is that helping them then to pick up on some of those cues which otherwise might be lost?

Ginny -   What do you actually do with children who are struggling in this way?  Do you have to teach everyone around them to talk in a different way or are there kind of training mechanisms you can use?

Susan -   So, you would look at two different ways.  I mean, my work as a speech and language therapist, we would often work on a specific aspect of language that a child is finding difficult.  If there's a particular aspect or grammar that they're not able to understand, particularly things like tenses for example, children with language difficulty will find very difficult to understand the concept of tenses and using -ed to mean past and things like that until you might work specifically on that.  But also, because they're in school and language is obviously part of the environment that they're exposed to at school to access to curriculum you would be working with the teachers, with the support staff in school.  So, that the curriculum is accessible to them, managing that school environment so that they're using shorter, simpler sentences, they're checking that the child is understood, that they're emphasising key words of vocabulary in order to make that learning process easier.

Ginny -   Anyone got any questions about learning languages either in children or as an adult?

Keith -   Keith from Cambridge.  In terms of its structure and the rhythm, what's the easiest foreign language to learn do you think?

Susan -   Well I mean, the easiest language to learn is always our native language.  It's the one we have most exposure to, it's the one - as we've already discussed, it's the one that we've been learning since we were in the womb.  So, that's no different from any other languages.  If you're thinking of learning a foreign language then you're going to be most successful with ones which are most closely approximate your native language.  So, for English, that might be say, a language like German which has a lot of the same roots, a lot of the same vocabulary and you're certainly going to be able to pick up the stress patterns because it's a similar stress pattern as opposed to learning a language that's very different in its structure and then its sound pattern, and its phonological pattern.  So, that will be say, a language like Japanese where they have a different sentence structure.  Their word order is different, their sound system is different and none of the vocabulary is likely to be similar.

Ali -   Hi.  I'm Ali from Derby.  I was born deaf.  It was fixed when I was about 3 or 4 with grommets.  To this day, if I'm not thinking about it, I speak very fast and I've always used this as my excuse, considering there's about 40 years where I could hear fine and 4 years where I couldn't.  It does appear to be an excuse.  But I wondered really, how much does hearing affect language development?

Susan -   Well, it has an enormous impact. If you're learning language through hearing then of course, if the signal that you're hearing is degraded in some way, so either because you've got a lot of fluid in your ear which you need grommets for in order to drain it, then the speech signal that you're getting is not as good quality as other people are getting.  And so, that means that it's again, so like the children we were talking about, it's going to be harder to pick up on the sound differences between words.  So, you might have quite a fuzzy representation of what the words and sounds are like.  But it's perhaps not going to as clear and as robust as people who have better hearing.

Rachel -   Rachel from St Neots. Just going back to the language, the native language that you can learn, what if you're in the womb that you hear your mother speaking one language and your father speaking another language, are you more inclined to be able to learn both or one, your mother over your father?

Susan -   I don't know specifically over mother over father, but I think you know, the languages that you're exposed to are ones that you will continue to learn.  So, if you're growing up in a bilingual family, then you will continue to learn those two languages and again, there's some work that came out last year that shows that actually, the rhythmic things that we've been talking about, children who are bilingual are also using that even if those two languages are rhythmically different.  They're still using the same kinds of rhythmic cues in those two languages to separate out things like word order and word structure in those two languages.  So, the same process applies.

Ginny -   Thank you, Susan.  That was Susan Richards, speech and language therapist and a PhD student at the Centre for Neuroscience in Education. Now over to Naked Scientists Kate Lamble and Hannah Critchlow for another experiment.

Kate -   I'm going to need all of your help this time I'm afraid.  There's no volunteering.  You're all in whether you want to be or not.  So, I'm a "speechie" in a former life.  I used to be a speech and language therapist and now, I work in radio, but I'm using my former knowledge today.  So, we just heard about how rhythms help us learn languages, but also, what "speechies" and linguists want to know is, do we learn each word individually as we hear it for the first time or do we learn rules that we can apply generally?  And there's a very famous test that can help us understand this.  So, I'm going to show you two pictures in just a second, but in the second one there's a gap and I'm going to need you all to shout out as loud as you can, what the word that should be in that gap is.  Are you ready?  I'm looking for nods all around here.  Fabulous!  Some of you are more ready than others but we'll role with it.  So, let me show you a picture.  This is a wug.  It's a bit of a monster.  None of you should've seen it ever before because Dave drew it this afternoon and it's his own mental creation.  So, this is a wug.  Let me show you the next picture and I'll read it out to you and then you need to all shout out the final word.  So, this is a Wug.  Now, there is another one.  There are two of them.  There are two...

Audience -   Wugs.

Kate - Wugs.  Everybody knows it.  Everybody knows it even kids down to 3 or 4 years of age can tell you that there are two wugs.  So, how do they know that?  They've never heard the words before.  It's entirely made up.  I'm sorry to break it to you, this is a fictional creature.  So, how do they know it? And what this tells us actually is that children have rules.  They know how to make something plural and they know the rules of grammar even though they don't know that they know it.  Some of you might have ended up in English class when you were 15,  and you were like, "pluperfect tense I don't know what that is", but you sort of know it as you speak the language.  So, you know it when you're 3 or 4, so what happens before then?  They did some tests.  They looked at kids who were two years old and they did sort of a variant of this where they showed them.  They said, "What's here?" to two-year-olds, "what can you see?"  Well, after they've told them that it's a wug.  And do you know what the biggest response for 2-year-olds who spoke English was? They just didn't say anything.  They clammed up and were absolutely silent.  But children who spoke Japanese which doesn't have a pluralisation - you don't have to put an -s or something on the end to make it plural - they'd happily say wug.  So, what that implies is that because kids know they should be doing something with it, they don't quite know the rule, but they know that something should be happening there that they're not quite sure about, they just don't say anything at all.  So, that means your kids from the age of two are learning grammar which you probably don't think you're learning until you're about 15 or so.


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