"You're building a brain architecture that's a perfect fit for Japanese or English or French," whatever is native, Kuhl explains — or, if you're a lucky baby, a brain with two sets of neural circuits dedicated to two languages.
It's remarkable that babies being raised bilingual — by simply speaking to them in two languages — can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.
Italian researchers wondered why there wasn't a delay, and reported this month in the journal Science that being bilingual seems to make the brain more flexible.
SHOOT: Best age is before age 7. I've taught English and tried to learn Korean and this is the golden rule: You can never say a new word often enough or slow enough. Practise, practise, practise - EX AD GHER RATE the word. Pretend your audience are 1 year old babies. In terms of language, they are, if not younger still.
YAHOO: Recall that Japanese "L" and "R" difficulty? Kuhl and scientists at Tokyo Denki University and the University of Minnesota helped develop a computer language program that pictures people speaking in "motherese," the slow exaggeration of sounds that parents use with babies.
Japanese college students who'd had little exposure to spoken English underwent 12 sessions listening to exaggerated "Ls" and "Rs" while watching the computerized instructor's face pronounce English words.
"We think the magic that kids apply to this learning situation, some of the principles, can be imported into learning programs for adults," says Dr. Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington, who is part of an international team now trying to turn those lessons into more teachable technology.
Kuhl offers an example: Japanese doesn't distinguish between the "L" and "R" sounds of English — "rake" and "lake" would sound the same. Her team proved that a 7-month-old in Tokyo and a 7-month-old in Seattle respond equally well to those different sounds.