How Does Language Work? Video Games Have The Answer!

Put a man in front of a baby and, from a mixture of bare-faced fear and bemusement, he will devolve his language into a series of goo-goos and ga-gas within seconds. Some say baby talk helps children learn to speak, other feel that fully formed sentences is the way to go. The truth is we don't know too much about how babies learn to speak - but now, thanks to video games, we're getting a grip on exactly how children learn to speak.

To uncover how spoken sounds are decoded by the brain, the research team designed a video game narrated in deliberately distorted speech. The soundtrack (unintelligible babble in any language) was the only source of instruction for the 77 adult players in the study. After only two hours of play, the participants could reliably extract world-length sound categories from continuous alien sounds and apply that learning to advance through the game.

"Traditionally, when we study adult learning in the lab, it's nothing like how infants learn language," said Holt, professor of psychology at CMU and a specialist in auditory cognitive neuroscience. "This video game models for adults the challenge language learning poses to infants. This presents the opportunity to study learning in ways that are just not feasible with infants."

Lacerda, professor of phonetics and an expert in language acquisition, agrees that using video games is a promising new way to explore language learning.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to approximate the task facing infants by creating a setting where adults are forced to infer what the meaning of different sound elements might be, and to do it in a functional way."

The research has the potential to help better understand and effectively treat a number of conditions including dyslexia and improving second language learning.

Is there anything video games can't do?

Researchers Use Video Game to Crack the 'Language Code' [Game Politics]

Thanks Chris


    I'd like to argue that when I speak to babies, I use full and proper English. This is done out of respect to the baby, as I'm sure they find it insulting that everyone just goos at them. (My cousin kept trying to join in conversations before he could speak, it was adorable)

    Nevertheless, it's an interesting experiment, very interesting results.

      My parents didn't use baby-talk when raising me and my brother.
      I've always considered "Ta" (Instead of "Thank you") to indicate someone was exposed to too much goo-ing during their early years.

        I say Ta, on occasions, but that's just because I use Bogan Language with an upper-class aussie accent...

    It isn't possible that after 2 hours the adults were doing a mental translation of the vocals? Like how you can understand an accent after listening to it for a while?*
    Also, they'd been playing the game for 2 hours, couldn't they have grasped the mechanics form trial and error in that time?

    *unless their from Kelty, there ain't no understanding those people.

      Probably at first, now I'm not apart of the study but I imagine that after a time of being re-introduced to these alien "words" they became familiar with them and how they were applied to one another. As a result, they may have stopped guessing and just started working out the answer properly, correlating to an improved success ratio later in the test as contrasted by the random attempts of initial "levels."

    This is fascinating.

    Anecdotally, I've definitely heard or experienced this sort of situation, where listening to unintelligible sounds for a long period allows people to pick up on individual words or phrases.

    Being stuck in Dubai airport for 12 hours listening to departure and arrival information in Arabic and English almost taught me numbers in Arabic.

    Of course, babies have no reference point, they have to decode meaning and context from scratch. It's an incredibly interesting area.

      I don't quite buy the "Babies are Tabula Rasa" claim. I think they have some sort of in-built programming, however little it may be.

      Just my opinion

      Aren't Arabic numbers the same... or is that just the written versions?

        The written version is pretty similar, I think.

        But yeah this was the spoken version. They'd say the gate number and stuff in Arabic and English, eventually it wasn't that difficult to work out the gate number just from the Arabic (I'd been there for like 12 hours with nothing else to do >___<)

        @Tad: It's a really interesting area to study, I'm definitely not an expert but I'd tend to agree that there's at least some pre-defined capacity in the brain. I'd hesitate to say that this extends totally to language, though - if only because kids of any sort can pick up many languages easily, not just their parents' tongue.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now