29 March 2011

Using technology to explore the acquisition of language

First, if you haven't seen my "Talking Babies" post at Neatorama, you might want to pop over and look at it - twin baby boys carry on an animated conversation using seemingly nonsensical sounds.

Then consider this TED talk featuring Deb Roy, a researcher at MIT who wired his new home with cameras and microphones in every relevant room so that every word and action could be viewed, saved, and analyzed.  90,000 hours of video, 140,000 of audio, capturing the life of his young son and the three caregivers (parents, nanny) to examine the influence of the social environment on language acquisition.

As a sample of what  immense computing power can do, he shows how the child's word for "water" morphs from "gaga" to "water."  And there is a "map" of every word (503) that the child learned by age 2.  For me, the "holy shit" moment begins at 8:00 when the 2D view is transformed to a 3D one, and the cameras allow a virtual walkthrough of the house.  I was also startled by the "wordscape" at 10:30.

The resolution of the video isn't great for fullscreen viewing, but the content, as is typical for TED talks, is awesome.  I think what's important is not how Dr. Roy's son learned to say "water," but rather how technology can be used to study the world.

And I suspect this also gives a hint of how the NSA analyzes every phone call and email sent in this country...


  1. Thank you! Fascinating. Language acquisition is an area I have studied intensively, but this is such a breakthrough. I need to find more on this project!

  2. Incredible. All of it. Thank you for posting.


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