Why do young children pick up language easier than adults?

Since she was a teenager, Kathryn Schuler has been on a mission to understand how young kids learn language with such apparent ease—and why it’s so much harder for adults to do the same.

A child sits at a table reading a book, two closed books are on the table beside them.

Now an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Linguistics and the head of Penn’s Child Language Lab, Schuler gave the final talk for the 2018–19 Penn Science Cafe lecture series, discussing kids and language at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in June.

She started off by listing the assumptions she hears most: Don’t kids just imitate their parents? Don’t they learn from their parents correcting their mistakes?

Nope. Considering every language’s multitude of rules, variations, and exceptions, she notes there must be more complex processes at work than simply Mommy said that.

Her work zooms in on language variations in particular, searching to understand why all typically developing kids will learn and match predictable variations in a language—for instance, dropping the end g from “going” in casual conversation—but know to filter out or regularize unpredictable variations that they hear, such as a non-native speaker’s mistakes. And why adults do the exact opposite, struggling to master predictable variations in a new language but repeating the errors they hear.

Inside her Child Language Lab at Penn, which opened in 2017, she’s been testing three hypotheses to figure out how kids perform their language-learning magic.

Schuler’s first theory is that kids decide a certain language variation is important because they hear it frequently in social contexts. Her second focuses on the idea that kids can tell which of their adult language models are “reliable” and which are prone to making mistakes. Third, she thinks kids probably notice whether their entire community shares a certain variation, which shows them it must be important.

But why aren’t adults able to achieve the same results? “My burning question underneath everything is: Is it something about their brains?”

Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.