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The Native Language Magnet theory

The Native Language Magnet Theory

In the last post, I discussed the research showing that children lose the ability to hear non-native sounds at 1-year of age. And as I said in the post, a video demonstrating this can be found in the Theory section at In this post, I will discuss one of the theories that explains what is happening.

            The Native Language Magnet Theory (NLM) (Kuhl, et al. 2008) holds that infants categorize sound patterns into a “sound map.” By 6-months, an English-speaking infant has heard hundreds of thousands of examples of the /i/ as in “daddy” and “mommy,” and NLM claims babies develop a sound map in their brains that helps them hear the /i/ sound clearly. Babies create perfect examples of sounds with a target area around each sound. These prototypes “tune” the child’s brain to the native language.

         This shift from a language-general to a language-specific pattern of perception makes learning a second language more difficult. Once a sound category exists in memory, “it functions like a magnet for other sounds” (Kuhl, 2000, p. 11853). That is, the prototype attracts sounds that are similar so that they sound like the prototype itself. This is why Japanese, who do not have the prototype of the vowel of “bit” mapped in memory, tend to hear it as the vowel in “beat” which they do have mapped. This neural commitment to a learned structure interferes with the processing of information so “initial learning can alter future learning” (Kuhl, 2000, p. 11855).

         Importantly, the sound map can be modified. In the next post, I will discuss what research has shown to be the most effective method.


Kuhl, P. K. (2000). A new view of language acquisition. Proceedings of the National  Academy of Science, 24, 11850-11857.

Kuhl, P. K., Conboy, B. T., Coffey-Corina, S., Padden, D., Rivera-Gaxiola, M., & Nelson, T.(2008). Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: New data and native language magnet  theory expanded (NLM-e). Philosophic Transactions of the Royal Society B, 369, 979- 1000.

Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F. -M., Liu, H. -M., Zhang, Y., & de Boer, B. (2001). Language/Culture/Mind/Brain: Progress at the margins between disciplines. In A. Domasio  et al. (Eds.), Unity of knowledge: The convergence of natural and human science (136-174). New York: The New York Academy of Sciences.


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