Thursday, February 10, 2011

Scottish researchers find gene that shows how infants learn language

From The Scotsman:

Children's ability to learn to speak is partly down to genetics, scientists have found.

Researchers at Edinburgh University have discovered a gene that sheds new light on the way infants learn language.

The ROBO1 gene directs chemicals in brain cells which help infants store and translate the speech sounds they hear into meaningful language.

The scientists in Edinburgh, working with colleagues in Australia, believe the discovery may help in the understanding of speech disorders, dyslexia and short-term memory problems which affect up to one in ten children in the UK.

The scientists conducted a five-year study, assessing the language learning techniques of 538 families with up to five children.

One of their key conclusions was that one version of the ROBO1 gene greatly enhanced a core component of language learning.

The researchers found a significant link between the way this gene functions and the brain's ability to store speech sounds for a brief period of time.

This process is an essential part of language learning for the very young, when words are at first meaningless until associated with an object or concept.

Professor Timothy Bates, of Edinburgh University's School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, led the research.

He said: "The infant language acquisition system is quintessentially human and yet is a complex system requiring many brain regions.

"The discovery of the ROBO1 gene helps to understand how speech sounds can be stored long enough to be integrated with meaning."

The research was carried out in collaboration with Edinburgh scientists and the University of Queensland. The results have been published in the European Journal of Human Genetics.

Sue Palmer, child development expert and author, said the research showed this was a key time for children's learning and one which had to be exploited.

She said it was crucial that parents spend this time talking and singing to their children to take advantage of their ability to pick up language.

She said: "What we are seeing today is that children are not being exposed to language as much as they once would have been.

"Children are being sung to and talked to in the early years less than in the past and this means many are arriving at school with less language than teachers expect. This isn't a deficiency but a delay in language development."

Last month the Scottish Government relaunched a campaign to encourage parents to engage with their youngsters.

Called Play, Talk, Read, it included a website with parenting tips, and activities for boosting toddlers' chances later in life. It also includes television and radio adverts to encourage parents to mentally stimulate their children from day one through low-cost, fun activities.