We were lucky enough to hear back from two world-renowned experts in the field of neuroscience and linguistics, especially with regards to neuroplasticity and language acquisition. Dr. Allyson Mackey and Dr. Gareth Roberts, both professors at the University of Pennsylvania, were eager to help provide feedback on our working hypothesis that playing languages to babies in a structured and regular manner will aid in learning foreign languages as an adult with near-native ability. They asked us follow-up questions that have led us to recalibrate and further define our moonshot.
Our original moonshot idea was to play foreign language tapes to infants aged 0-12 months to increase the length of the critical period and keep phonetics plastic as adults. This is a non-invasive method for increased flexibility in language fluency for adults. We envision creating an app or website which would supply tapes of native foreign language speakers speaking in their native tongue.
Point One - How Dangerous?
First, Dr. Mackey notes that even this moonshot idea still has some dangerous possible effects on the participants, which was why we had deviated from several of our previous plans. She notes that “we lose sensitivity to non-native languages so we can build expertise in our own.” We acknowledge her concern, but we do not consider this risk to be strong enough to deter our pursuit of making multilingualism possible for adults; specifically, because there are already many countries where virtually everyone speaks at least 3 languages, we don’t think that the expertise in native languages will be hurt by exposure to others.
Point Two - How Sure are We?
Another issue is one of past evidence of success. Some of the studies we have used as motivation behind our moonshot are not exactly modern; the research was conducted in the 80s with small sample sizes. To reaffirm the plausibility of our solution, we will dive deeper into the existing current literature regarding research in the field. Some initial research has already shown positive results, like work done by Shaowen Bao from 2013 showing that exposure to complex sounds early in life allows for greater neural discrimination of these sounds later on as well, and other work from 2011 by Singh et al showed that reacquisition of phonemes of other languages that one is exposed to early in life is reacquired rapidly - that is, it is not lost after disuse. Both of these studies provide further evidence that our moonshot is a feasible, effective, and very doable solution to increasing the ability to pursue multilingualism in adulthood.
Point 3 - Keep the babies interested!
One interesting remark that professor Roberts made was “I’m not sure I’d put much money on it! Kids are remarkably good at identifying what languages in their environment are practically worth attending to.” This is something that we had not considered -- from our experience, learning a language requires the subject to actively listen to and try to speak in the language they are learning. While our objective is not to teach infants new languages but rather to expose them to a variety of diverse phonemes, this rule may still be true -- we will probably find greater success if the infants pay attention to the recordings, instead of just playing it in the background, so during the foundry phase of our project we will consider ways to engage the infant while the phonemes play.
Point 4 - What’s our objective?
The responses emphasized that there is a limit to the number of languages an infant can learn at once, and that it’s unrealistic to expect that an infant will learn many languages simultaneously. As such, we will reiterate this: we do not believe that any infant will achieve bilingualism or multilingualism through our process, but rather we believe that later in life, the infants exposed to our app will be more sensitive to foreign phonemes. This hypothesis is well supported by a variety of studies (some mentioned above) and is a much more feasible moonshot to achieve than the former assertion. The professors we emailed also confirmed that this idea is achievable, and that we should not focus on trying to make infants bilingual or trilingual, but rather on improving their ability to recognize and distinguish phonemes to make language learning easier in adulthood.
Given that we did not receive any feedback from the professors who specialize in optogenetics and other related topics, and that the field raises many ethical and practical questions, we have decided to scrap that idea, and just focus on the phoneme solution.
Feedback from experts has allowed our team to refine our idea further. We found ourselves at a branching point in our moonshot - with so many possible ways to continue, we’ve decided to use this tree of languages as a visualization tool for deciding what languages to provide in our service. Ideally, parents would be able to pick combinations from any languages they choose, but in the coming weeks we will focus on identifying which combinations we think will be the most effective towards our goal or the most desirable for native English-speaking families.
Our moonshot idea has been changed from this feedback. Now, we will likely not just play foreign language tapes as babies play or go down for nap time. Instead, we will find a way to make this phoneme exposure more interactive in the following weeks. Additionally, we will make it clear the goal through our app is not multilingualism, but that the goal is enhanced plasticity in language learning in adulthood.