Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How Babies Learn

We all know a lot about learning from our own personal experiences--that repetition helps; so does an emotional charge (for example, we are more likely to remember something that is charged with love or anger). Memory experts tell us that associating something with visual images, especially with movement, or with amusing, titillating, or even absurd ideas helps strengthen memories. Bards through the ages have known that rhyme and rhythm help too, as when a story is made into a poem or song. But there are three important principles that are not widely known that can help us understand how babies learn. These are (1) awakening and sunsetting, (2) selective suppression, and (3) extensional abstracting.

First, awakening and sunsetting. As a young brain develops, different areas become actively available and then fade again. It is known, for example, that a young human brain that is not exposed to language during the first five years of life (perhaps because of severe social or emotional deprivation or physical disability) will never learn any language fluently--not a "native" language, nor sign language, nor any language. But if the crucial symbol association and grammar areas of the brain are stimulated and awakened in those first few years of life when they become available, the skills can be transferred (or "translated") to other languages later. There are similar brain-awakenings for skills in mathematics, music, even aspects of athletic balance, and probably for a thousand other subtle perceptual-motor skills that we have not yet identified and studied closely.

An important point to remember is that if these various brain areas are not "awakened" during the key periods when they become developmentally available, they may "sunset" and never be as flexibly and readily available again. It is also important to note that as they awaken, they summon a child's interest and attention. A child instinctively wants to explore and practice skill sets that are awakening and becoming available for stimulation and for learning experiences.

What does this first, often-forgotten principle tell us about teaching and learning (and parenting) young children? Primarily, that a child should have access to a widely varied perceptual-motor environment. And also, that every adult should be flexible and encouraging in responding to a child's interests, no matter how pointless and irrelevant they may appear to the adult's older, supposedly wiser, but in fact culturally stifled vision. A child's developing interests derive from awakening brain areas that, if ignored or suppressed, may not rise again.

Second, selective suppression of perceptual and cognitive skills. We all know that normal, healthy childhood development involves learning a parade of information and skills--from smiling and walking to physically manipulating objects with one's hands and the cognitive skills for manipulating mental objects with one's mind. But we often do not appreciate that normal, healthy childhood development depends on learning "not-doing" of certain functions, as well as on "doing" of others. For example, some explanatory paradigms suggest that autism (which characteristically has significant social and emotional disability) is due to brain overload and the inability of the individual to sort out or filter out distracting and unwanted input. (See the essay titled "Strange Brain Games" in this collection.) Furthermore, decades of studies on minimal cerebral dysfunction and hyperactive learning disorders have demonstrated that a child's learning is often strengthened and focused by reducing environmental distractions, in other words by supporting the child's selective suppression abilities.

In a parallel way, babies must often learn to group certain perceptions together, and to ignore certain distinctions. For example, before they learn to speak words or to organize words into phrases and sentences, babies learn to babble in their native languages. A Chinese or German or French baby babbles to practice making the phonemes (the sound units) of the language the baby hears. And this includes selectively suppressing certain perceptual distinctions. A person whose native language was Mandarin, for example, has learned not to discriminate between the "r" and "l" sounds of English--they simply are not heard as different sounds--the child has learned to selectively suppress making this perceptual distinction and to hear these closely related sounds as the same sound. Similarly, the glottal fricatives that are carefully distinguished from one another in German and the Scandinavian languages all sound the same to a native English speaker. For another example, Germans cannot distinguish the "d" sound from the "th" sound of English, whereas native English speakers cannot pronounce German umlauted vowels or their French equivalents.

Clearly, selective suppression is a two-edged sword. While it can reduce confusion and facilitate learning and understanding in the early years, it can also persist and interfere with other learning later on. As a child gets older and learns an extended vocabulary and a grasp of syntax, the child learns to use context more than precise auditory discrimination to determine meaning. When a young adult wants to learn a foreign language, the selective suppression, once learned (and once useful) persists as a learned inability to make certain auditory discriminations.

What does this tell us about babies' early learning? For one thing, babies should be exposed to a variety of different languages so that they do not learn to suppress the auditory discriminations that will limit them to their native language later on. But more generally, their perceptual experiences should be widely varied, in fact more varied than the cultural biases of their parents would customarily encourage.

Third, extensional abstracting. Language learning naturally occurs extensionally, that is, by building up verbal categories by trial and error. For example, a baby normally learns the definition of the verbal category "cow" through an interactive process with an adult that could be characterized, "that's a cow," "that's not a cow," that's a cow," "that's not a cow," etc. But in many cultures (such as ours), after the age of five or six this normal, physiologically determined style of learning is suppressed in favor of culturally imposed generic-specific definition patterns. By the second or third grade, the child has learned that the verbal category "cow" should be defined by the generic-specific method--one learns to "define" things ONLY one way, by naming the general category and describing the specific case. For example, a "cow" might be defined, by this approach, as an "animal" (general category) that "gives milk" (specific characteristic).

For another example of the difference between extensional and generic-specific defining, a five year old knows through extensional learning experiences that a chihuahua, a poodle, and a Saint Bernard are all "dogs" but that a pig and a rabbit are not. But defining "dog" by the generic-specific method (as our society requires of anyone over the age of about five) is a dauntingly difficult task. Defining extensionally comes naturally and fits with the way the brain works. On the other hand, defining by the generic-specific method is culturally imposed and does not fit well with the brain's equipment.

For a final example of the advantage (and power) of extensional definitions, I remember being astonished and pleased to discover that my five year old son had a firm and accurate grasp of the verbal category "outfit." As we drove along, he could confidently and correctly say, "that person is wearing an outfit--that person is not." He had learned the subtle and elusive definition of the verbal category "outfit" extensionally--but no generic-specific definition could capture it.

In a similar way, by the time we of Indo-European language stocks (such as English) are adults and are firmly indoctrinated into our culture's mental perspectives, we are incapable of "understanding" or intuitively grasping quantum mechanics. Although this mathematically and scientifically established way of looking at the tiny world of atoms and their interactions is widely accepted in scientific circles, intuitively it seems very strange and impossible. Linguists, particularly of the Whorfian school, point out that people indoctrinated as children into some other language stocks (such as Hebrew and Hopi) are far better cognitively equipped to "grasp" quantum mechanics.

Helping babies learn is a subtle and challenging undertaking. It is made somewhat easier and more understandable if we keep these three, little-appreciated principles in mind--awakening and sunsetting, sellective suppression, and extensional abstraction.