Babies are born ready to learn
How do we learn? The answer is as simple as it is profound: “No surprise, no learning: this basic rule now seems to have been validated in all kinds of organisms—including young children.” So says leading French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene in his intriguing new book, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain.1 In other words, someone learns when you introduce something that is new, different, unexpected. When I say that 1 + 1 = 2, you’ll have learned nothing. But if I assert that 2 + 2 = 5, you will learn that my arithmetic is hopeless, and you will question my education!
Learning has many benefits. Schooling can take place in various contexts, and at an early age it contributes to better outcomes years later. These improvements are in many areas—”from lower crime rates to higher IQs and incomes to better health”, says Dehaene (p. 141 of his book). However, learning starts at an even earlier age than some might think.
Amazing learning skills
Did you know that, “Right at birth, babies can tell the difference between most vowels and consonants in every language in the world”? (p. 65). In addition to this, “babies already prefer listening to their native language rather than to a foreign one—a truly extraordinary finding which implies that language learning starts in utero [in the womb]” (p. 64). In fact, rather than starting off as a tabula rasa (blank slate), a baby’s brain is ready to investigate and interact with the world, like a “true Sherlock Holmes in diapers” (p. 61).
Reading bedtime stories to children every evening strengthens their brain circuits for language and enables them at a later age “to understand texts and formulate complex thoughts” (p. 142). As a father of a 2-year-old daughter, I certainly resonate with this.
Also, while learning another language as an adult is by no means easy, for young children it is automatic, provided they are spoken to. The ability to master sounds of a foreign language is already much less at 12 months compared to just a few months. Long-term fluency in an extra language also requires that the child be in situations where she must use that language to communicate, the earlier the better—and continue through puberty otherwise it is readily forgotten. The ‘window’ for grammar learning starts closing around puberty.
Immigrants to a different-language country, if under four years old on arrival, end up with a barely detectable accent in that country’s language. But the likelihood of an accent, and how pronounced it is, increases massively if they migrated during adolescence or later (pp. 107–108). Further, being raised in a bilingual context gives people “better abilities for language processing and for acquiring a third or fourth language” (p. 142).
Dehaene also notes that “a child’s vocabulary at three to four years old directly depends on the amount of child-directed speech they received during their first years. Passive exposure does not suffice: active one-to-one interactions are essential” (p. 142). That might seem obvious, but unfortunately ideas like ‘children should be seen, not heard’ can be applied so as to discourage such interaction—even in Christian circles. Our daughter carefully studies our mouths as she says, “Again!” when we sing to her or recite Scripture.
How did it come about, that children right at birth are equipped for language—any language in fact? Apparently, or so Stanislas Dehaene claims, “the nascent brain already possesses considerable knowledge inherited from its long evolutionary history” (p. 53). You see, allegedly, “We are the heirs of an unfathomable wisdom. Through Darwinian trial and error, our genome has internalized the knowledge of the generations that have preceded us” (p. 25). It is remarkable how evolution gets credit for many things. However, knowledge (i.e. information) is not a tangible thing, a property of matter. Even though information is stored on matter, it is a non-material entity, and all observations confirm that it only ever originates from an intelligent source. Is evolution intelligent, with the sense to store information for future purposes? Does it have foresight? Clearly not, as evolutionists themselves often insist.
Dehaene further says this applies to more than just language: “parity, negative numbers, fractions … all these concepts are demonstrably grounded in the representation of quantities that we inherit from evolution” (p. 131).
Discredited from within
While acknowledging Dehaene’s standing in the field of human cognition, this sort of evolutionary handwaving is unworthy of such an accomplished scientist. Consider that at the moment of conception, the brain does not actually exist. This means that this “considerable knowledge” (e.g. the ability to quickly learn language) is already in the nascent (i.e. embryonic, or incipient) human brain, and is somehow transferred there via the genome (the DNA information inherited from the parents). It is reasonable to believe that the omniscient Creator wisely programmed the information for this ability into the first human couple, ready to be passed on via the genome to all their descendants. Evolutionists, however, believe it is the result of an accumulation of genetic accidents, filtered by natural selection.
The father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky—a self-professed atheist/agnostic—said that the process by which the human mind achieved its present state of complexity is “a total mystery”. He further wrote:
It is perfectly safe to attribute this development to ‘natural selection’, so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena.2
God speaks, and God hears
Of course, the origin of the amazing human mind is only a mystery to those who reject God’s majesty. We are made in His image and ready for fellowship with Him and other people—which must entail communication.
The inbuilt human capability to start learning language before birth3 underlines the value and personhood of the unborn. It also renders the homage to evolutionary history completely useless.
References and notes
- Dehaene, S., How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, Penguin Random House, UK, p. 205, 28 Jan 2020. Dehaene has won several prestigious scientific awards. Return to text.
- Chomsky, N., Language and Mind, Cambridge University Press, p. 9, 1968. Return to text.
- See also University of Kansas, Language development starts in the womb; sciencedaily.com, 18 Jul 2017. Return to text.