Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Baby talk

A really good article on the development of language skills in babies. Actually, it's an extract from a book called The Human Voice by Anne Karpf.

It has been clear for some time (well, for all time to mothers) that the foetus is sensitive to the voice of the mother, to its pitch, intonation and intensity. Evidently, it starts very early indeed.

Thanks to modern ultrasound techniques it has become clear that foetuses begin to react to some sounds as early as 14 weeks, and from about 28 weeks' gestation respond to auditory stimulation.
This is interesting.
Before [eight to 10 months], babies reared in English-speaking households can still hear syllables that are distinct in Hindi, for example, but not in English - syllables that adult English speakers can no longer differentiate: their phonetic perception has been altered by linguistic experience. In some real phonetic sense, therefore, growing up entails loss. We become deaf to certain sounds: in order to master one language, we have to lose our sensitivity to all of them.
This is true, I think, for most knowledge. Being able to cope with the world requires the sort of pruning my father used to apply to our garden - radical, almost unforgiving (and resulting in extreme vocalisations from my mother). It is the only way to bring order to what otherwise would overwhelm us. The growth of awareness past a certain point doesn't result in enlightenment, but in paralysis. Science is a simplification of reality, a functional one, but a simplification nonetheless. The question is always, how effective is this simplification as opposed to that one.

Language does this. Just think of the variety of shapes and sizes and functions covered by the word 'table'. If we had to have distinct words for every different one, or even every different type, we would end up learning nothing else. Plato took this as evidence of the existence of an ideal (table). I take as a useful sloppiness, or generalisation. For the number of phenomena is infinite, but of words and the time to speak them, there are only finities.

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