The analogy to science works very well when it comes

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The analogy to science works very well when it comes to explaining how babies solve the Other Minds problem and the External World problem. There really is a world of objects and minds out there. Babies make up theories about that world, but those theories can always be revised if new evidence comes along. In the case of language, however, the problem is rather different. It is not about discovering an independent reality but about coordinating what you do with what other people do. There isn’t any abstract “language” out there that is inde- pendent of what people say. We could find out (in fact, we do find out) that we are all wrong about some important aspect of the world or other people. But we couldn’t find out that we are all speaking English the wrong way; English just is the language we speak. So the babies’ Language problem is not so much the scientist’s problem—find out what the world is really like—as it is a kind of sociological or even anthropolo- gical problem: find out what the folks around here do and learn how to do it yourself. The other folks are crucial. The problem is difficult because different communities speak different languages, sometimes quite radically different lan- guages. Babies don’t know beforehand which language they are going to be exposed to. Potentially, they have to be able to master any one of thousands of different languages. And yet, by the time they are four or five, children have figured out precisely which language is spoken in their community. Grown-ups are both the teachers and the subject matter. What Children Learn About Language / 101
What they say is the only source of evidence about what the language is like. And for the children the aim of the enterprise is not just to find out about the grown-ups’ language but also to make that language their own. What Newborns Know Ask anyone when children start to learn language. Almost everyone will say that language begins when babies say their first words. But the new techniques for uncovering what babies know have led to a surprising discovery. Babies know import- ant things about language literally from the time they are born, and they learn a great deal about language before they ever say a word. Most of what they learn at that early age involves the sound system of language. We decode the sound crypto- gram, and solve many of the problems that still baffle com- puters, before we can actually talk at all. We mentioned that part of what makes learning language difficult is that languages carve up sounds and different lan- guages carve them up differently. A wide variety of different sounds, with very different spectrograms, will all seem like the same sound to us, and, in turn, that sound will seem sharply different from other sounds that are actually quite similar to it physically. Suppose you use a speech synthesizer to gradually and continuously change one particular feature of a sound, such as the consonant sound r, and play that gradually changing sound for people. You very gradually and continuously change the

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