Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Birth of a Word


                    How a Professor took parental attentiveness to a higher level
You want to catch every precious moment of your child's early moments of life. You want to be able to remember and look back on the moments which defined them and taught them new skills. You use your camera, or video footage to do so........or perhaps you rig up your home with 11 overhead fisheye video cameras, 14 ceiling mounted microphones and a 5- terabyte disc cache in your basement to store the data!

Sounds a bit excessive, but that is exactly what Professor Deb Roy from MIT in America did! However, his reasons were not just personal. Yes, it gave his partner and himself a personal insight into the goings on in their home once they brought their son into the world, but Prof Roy really wanted to find out more about how humans naturally acquire language within their primary social setting. So, from the moment they walked in the door with their new baby, they began collecting more than 300 gigabytes per day of compressed memory to seek out the answers.

The project, which became known as the "Human Speechome Project" recorded over 90,000 hours of video and 140,000 audio within three years. They showed how his son had managed to learn 503 words by the time he reached his second birthday, and Prof Roy wanted to find out just why some words were learnt over others. Every time his son learnt a new word, he was able to trawl through the archives of data collected with his team at MIT to find out where and why his son had learnt the word. He was able to create word landscapes, or "wordscapes" with his data to track where the words were being spoken most, such as the word "water", which his son heard mostly in the kitchen. You can watch the video of how he learnt to say "water" and how he progressed from "gaga" using the links I have put at the end of this post.

What was most interesting about Prof Roy's research was that he found that primary caregivers naturally are fine tuned to their child's specific language acquisition, simplifying their language to help the child with the "birth of a word." He says "If you can see what your child is doing when he hears a particular word, it provides complementary information" He found that if his child heard a word in the same visual context a number of times, he would pick it up far more quickly.

It definitely is a fascinating insight into how children acquire language. I myself was transfixed at the screen when watching his piece at a conference. Of course, this sort of research, even when funded as Prof Roy's was, has its expensive downsides. Can you imagine the electricity bill!!

Take a look at more about Prof Roy's Human Speechome Project at :

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8127804.stm

http://www.media.mit.edu/cogmac/projects/hsp.html

http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word.html   ( A must watch!!)

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703386704576186573015831898.html

http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2012/11/how-to/how-to-experiment-on-your-baby

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