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From 'gaa' to 'water' -- language acquisition at TED

March 18, 2011 |  2:32 pm

"Imagine if you could record your life, everything you said, everything you did ... that's exactly the journey that my family began 5 1/2 years ago." Deb Roy, who directs MIT's cognitive machines group, wired up his house with video and audio and built a kind of grid-based tracing system for how people moved through the space, creating a vast data set -- all to study how his son learned to speak.

In this TED Talk, Roy demonstrates the stunning data-driven visualizations his team created to reveal space-based components of language acquisition. He's focusing not just on the words, but the where and how of what was said to his son; suggesting what was said around the infant, and when. For example, his team could map out each time and place a single word was spoken in front of Roy's child, which appears like a series of stalagmites spiking up around their house.

And in a crazy audio compression, he demonstrates how one sound -- "gaa" -- evolves into the full word, "water."

Doubtless, not everyone wants to have their home fully wired for around-the-clock observation. But Roy's research certainly makes it seem worthwhile.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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