How Many Mbs Does a Child Need to Learn a Language? ⋆

How Many Mbs Does a Child Need to Learn a Language?

When we think about how much ‘data’ we store in our minds, there’s likely a hell of a lot of processing power going on within the brain.

Just think about when we start parsing and storing information – from our youngest memories. From early babyhood, we evolve from speaking in garbled nonsense to stringing together sentences and understanding the meaning behind our words. However, are we really ‘wired’ to pick up a language?

According to a UC Berkeley research paper, not at all. They found that language pick-up from birth to age 18 is a remarkable feat instead of something we’re built to do.

Apparently, we take in around 12.5Mbs of information about our native tongue from birth to age 18. Apparently, that works out at around 2 pieces of information per minute. If you were to actually turn that into computing data, though, it would equate to around 1.5MB: about a third of an MP3 track.

For those of an older vintage, it would fill one of those classic 1.5MB floppy disks. You could fit all of your knowledge about language into a single floppy drive. That’s not to make it sound pitiful – it’s to show just how much data we’re storing today on our computers.

This latest finding, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, immediately caused a stir. It was something that changed a lot of views about how we take in language.

For years, it’s been assumed that we could easily ‘teach’ a robot how to learn a language, just as we easily ‘teach’ our children how to do so. This study, though, challenges that train of thought.

A different path for learning

According to Steven Piantadosi, the senior author of the paper and an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, this is a very important find. He noted: “Ours is the first study to put a number on the amount you have to learn to acquire language,

“It highlights that children and teens are remarkable learners, absorbing upwards of 1,000 bits of information each day.”

The study ran on the classic definition of a ‘byte’ of information being eight ‘bits’ of information. As Piantadosi notes, though: “When you think about a child having to remember millions of zeroes and ones (in language), that says they must have really pretty impressive learning mechanisms,”

Alongside lead author Frank Mollica, Mr. Piantadosi has made quite the breakthrough in how we think about language learning. This is going to help us to understand more, in the future, about how we learn and manage information gathering.

Once thought of as just a natural thing to do, picking up our native tongue might actually be a far more impressive feat than a lot of presently give it any credit for. That, then, is very exciting.