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PIECES OF MIND: Old Brain/New Tricks

Is there a critical window for learning language? Neuroscientist Helen Neville of the University of Oregon, Eugene, believes there is --whether the language is spoken or signed. Through her work Neville has been able to find out what regions of the brain process language. In adults different parts of the brain do specialized jobs, but very young children process language all over the brain, suggesting that optimized learning occurs early in life.

Curriculum Links
Activity 1: Sensory Competition
Activity 2: Language Development
For Further Thought



brain organization






language development


imaging techniques


Helen Neville, the scientist featured on this segment of FRONTIERS, studies where in the brain we process language. She also is interested in various cognitive functions and the plasticity of the brain. In this activity, we'll explore what happens when you try to learn something through one sense but experience competing input from another.

Try this activity with a partner. Read the entire activity first and set up your data table before you begin the experiment.

OBJECTIVE Conduct an experiment to find out how various senses compete during the learning experience.

  • paper
  • pen or pencil
  • stop watch
  • boom box (optional)

  1. Write a series of six random, two-digit numbers, like this: 47 09 15 66 31 14.
  2. Give the list to your partner. Allow your partner 30 seconds to memorize the numbers. Keep the environment as quiet as possible. Close all doors and windows. Instruct those around you to speak softly or not at all.
  3. After 30 seconds, put the list of numbers away. Wait another 30 seconds.
  4. Ask your partner to write down the numbers.
  5. Check how many numbers your partner remembered correctly.
  6. Repeat Steps 1 through 5 using a new set of numbers. This time, in Step 2, introduce some "auditory competition." That is, make noise. Talk to your partner. Sing or say a poem. Tell about your last birthday, what day it was and what you did. Play some music if you have it.
  7. Using new numbers each time, repeat both trials two more times, so you have three "quiet" trials and three "noisy" ones.
  8. For each study, record data in the following tables.





  • How do the scores compare (silent vs. noisy)? Propose a hypothesis about learning that might account for the differences. You may want to consider such information as which noises were most distracting.
  • Tally data for the class as a whole. Did different individuals demonstrate different learning styles?


What are the implications of this experiment for:
  • a teacher preparing a lesson or teaching a class?
  • an architect designing a conference room?
  • an air traffic controller?
  • students studying for an exam?
  • a library?


Even at a young age, children can talk and their language has meaning. As they grow older, they exhibit increasing grammatical complexity. Developmental psychologists are interested in the way the brain acquires, stores and retrieves information.

For this activity, you'll need several willing subjects of different ages ranging from young children to teenagers or adults. For example, your younger brother, age 8; your cousin, 4; friend, 10; friend, 14 or 15; parent, 42. This study can be done individually, in pairs or in teams.

  • tape recorder
  • pen or pencil
  • writing paper
  • photographs or illustrations


Explore the relationship between age and language by employing research methods of interviewing, transcription and statistical analysis.

  1. Choose a photograph or work of art that contains a simple, recognizable scene. It should have some details, but not be too complex or abstract. A farmer in a field or a ship docked in a bay would be good examples.
  2. Explain to your subject that you want him/her to look at the image and describe it verbally for one minute. Explain that you will tape record the description. Before you begin, try to make your subject comfortable. Answer any questions he/she has about the study before you begin and explain that there is no "right answer" expected. (All you have to say about your study is that you are researching the way people describe things.)
  3. Your subject should say as much as he/she feels like saying in a minute. Don't force or pressure your subject into saying more than what comes naturally.

Transcribe your interviews by listening to the tape and writing down the name, age and recorded comments of each subject. Analyze the passage:
  1. Count the total number of words.
  2. Circle the nouns and underline the verbs.
  3. Count the total number of nouns and verbs.
  4. Calculate the average number of words per sentence.
  5. Calculate the average number of letters per word.
  6. Graph one or all of the following data as a function of age:
    1. words per minute
    2. words per sentence
    3. letters per word
    4. any other relationships you feel might be important to your study.

      Make a line or bar graph and put age on the X or horizontal axis -- this is the independent variable. Data about language, the dependent variable, goes on the Y or vertical axis.

  7. What can you conclude about language from this study? What do your graphs show about the development of language? Can you form any hypotheses about how people learn?


Compare different languages rather than age levels. Interview a person whose native language is English, and then repeat the experiment in a second language. Of course, analyzing your data could be tricky without an interpreter!


  • What might be the implications of these studies for learning a second language?
  • What would be the most effective way for a deaf child to learn a language?

CREDIT: Marc Rosner, who teaches physical and earth science at Port Chester Middle School in Port Chester, New York, contributed these activities.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.