Complicated foreign languages
Scientists study young children's strategies for learning their mother tongue. Initial results point to an inherited ability to learn languages. Psycholinguists at the University of Potsdam headed by Professor Jürgen Weissenborn are investigating how children acquire their language. For the first time, they are examining babies between the ages of six and 22 months – children who are not yet able to speak themselves. "We offer the children language over loudspeakers and observe how they react to it," says linguist Barbara Höhle. The children receive the speech stimulus from the left or right. The researchers measure the length of time the child turns to the loudspeaker. "The children, for example, turn their heads longer towards their mother tongue than towards a foreign language," reports Höhle.
Studies show that the most important grammatical characteristics are acquired by the age of three. Even the youngest react to incorrect wording with discomfort - even if they are not yet able to articulate it. Weissenborn says: "They listen longer to sentences with correct word order than to incorrect sentences."
Until now, scientists had assumed that children of this age were not able to recognize such complex structures at all. The results are consistent with research from England and France: the ability to acquire one or more languages seems to be innate, regardless of intelligence. "There must be very flexible structures in the children's brains that make this effortless learning possible," says Weissenborn. What is certain, however, is that after this phase, languages have to be painstakingly memorized.