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A Common Misconception

It happens all the time. I say learners can learn the difficult sounds of English through exposure to video clips, and someone argues they can’t and cite a study by Patricia Kuhl. It is an all too common misunderstanding.

In the study referred to, 9-month old American infants were exposed to native Mandarin Chinese speakers in 12 sessions. Subsequent tests of Mandarin perception demonstrated that the exposure to Mandarin helped the children perceive a tested phoneme. In a second experiment, infants were exposed to the same Mandarin speakers via audiovisual recordings. The results demonstrated that exposure to recorded Mandarin, without personal interaction, had no effect. 

Some people have mistakenly taken this to mean that children of any age will not learn anything from audiovisual resources. Let’s take a look at what it really means.

First, Kuhl’s study was with 9-month old infants. The youngsters were yet to experience the perceptive narrowing that occurs at around one-year of age. Projecting these findings to older children is a mistake. Also, and importantly, the study never claims learners can’t learn from short, focused clips. The authors simply claim the 9-month olds won’t learn from video when the speakers in the video speak naturally. That is, if the video is of a native speaker speaking natural language, 9-month olds will not pick up individual phonemes even though, at that age, they are able to distinguish them.

The fact is that Dr. Kuhl and other researchers clearly say infants will learn from short and focused audio clips. Some relevant quotes (I have added the bolded lettering on the most relevant phrases):

This is from Kuhl’s abovementioned study:

Previous research on statistical learning, including studies on phonetic learning, indicates that infants can learn from audio-only exposure when exposure consists of a small number of artificial language stimuli. However, the current experiment offers a far greater challenge for infants. In the present case, infants are exposed to tens of thousands of syllables embedded in natural language spoken by a range of speakers, with no isolation of the test sounds. We hypothesized that under this natural and more complex learning situation, social interaction would play a role in learning. (Kuhl, Tsao, Liu, 2003)

The “artificial” language that children can learn from is less complex usage where sounds are isolated, like minimal pairs, which is what b4 focuses on. A quote from another article:

The data suggest that in natural, complex language learning situations, infants may require a social tutor to learn… Does the finding that social interaction affects language learning in more natural settings invalidate studies showing that phonetic and word learning can be demonstrated with very short-term laboratory exposure in the absence of a social context? Clearly, not all learning requires a social context; short-term exposures can result in learning in the absence of social interaction. (Kuhl, Conboy, Cofey-Corina, 2008)


Thus, the presence of a human being interacting with the infant during language exposure, while not required for simpler statistical  -learning tasks is critical for learning in complex natural language-learning situations in which infants heard an average of 33,000 Mandarin syllables from a total of four different talkers over a 4–5-week period. (Kuhl, 2010)

Statistical learning tasks are those like in Maye, Werker and Gerkin (2002) which uses minimal pairs in perception tasks. Another place where Dr. Kuhl points out phonemic learning can take place when not from a human speaking:

Social interaction also plays a role in learning at the phonetic level of language. When 9-month-old English-learning infants experienced a nonnative language (Mandarin) through live interactions with adults, television, or audio-only presentations, only those infants who experienced the new language through live interactions showed phonetic learning as assessed with behavioral and brain measures.  Thus, although infants can learn phonetically from 1- to 2-minute presentations of isolated syllables in the absence of a social context, learning the phonemes of a new language from natural language experience appears to be boosted by interaction with a social partner. (Conboy, Brooks, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 2015)


Another point that should be made is that when the infants were presented with the televised clips, they were alone. The clips were simply showing on a screen. No adult was present to interact with the child, to direct the infant’s attention, to view the clip and share the experience. Had this been the case, the social inter-action, the shared viewing, might have showed a positive result. In short, if there had been social interaction with the televised clips, learning may have occurred.

Which is to say, the kind of video exposure Aka-Kara English and b4 propose has been proven effective. Saying otherwise and basing the claim on Kuhl, Conboy, Cofey-Corina, 2008, is a misconception.




Conboy, Brooks,  Meltzoff, & Kuhl (2015) Social Interaction in Infants’ Learning of Second-Language Phonetics: An Exploration of Brain–Behavior Relations. doi:  10 1080/87565641.2015.1014487

Kuhl, Tsao & Liu (2003) Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning

Kuhl, Conboy, Coffey-Corina et al (2008) Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: new  data and native language magnet theory expanded (NLM-e). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Kuhl. (2010). Brain Mechanisms in Early Language AcquisitionNeuron.

Maye, J., Werker, J. & Gerken, L.A. (2002). Infant sensitivity to distributional informati can affect phonetic discrimination. Cognition, 82.



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