Baby Language Acquisition & Attrition

By Aaron W. Rockwell, Staff Writer

From being on a journey to learning a new language, I often think about timetables of learning and how much time after I learn the language I will retain it. I often hear people talk about how they took a language for two to three years in high school, but currently can’t mutter a decent word in the language. I do not think this is solely a reflection on the education system doing a bad job of teaching second languages to high schoolers (though there probably is something to be said about how some students in the programs only go to check the box).

Thus, as my brain swirls with numbers, I wondered what percentage of a language is lost based on time. Is it a straight line rate of decay, such as X number of learned words lost per day/month? First off, the research on this topic is sparse due to the fact that it is difficult to measure. My search led to not being able to identify a single quantifiable story of lost heritage language, but I loosely recall somewhere hearing of someone at 6 years old losing their heritage language, and recently read this comment of a man losing his at 8 years old.

A child learns words at an exponential speed until hitting 42,000 words, which is about the average a 20-year-old will know. Here is what that would look like in table form, and then graphically.

Age Words Known
12 months 4
18 months 50
24 months 250
30 months 450
36 months (3 years) 1000
42 months 1200
48 months (4 years) 1600
54 months 1900
60 months (5 years) 2350
72 months (6 years) 4800
144 months (12 years) 42000
Data Courtesy: gwu.edu
Data Courtesy: gwu.edu

You can thus conclude that a six-year-old knows approximately 4,800 words and an eight-year-old knows ~11,250 words. In the above-mentioned instance, the man claims to have lost over 10,000 words of his heritage language. I’m incredulous at that point; I think that at any point before 5 years old, it’s possible to lose a heritage language because of the lack of word knowledge and the number of thoughts in the language.

Here are some semi-random facts I discovered while looking up this topic, trying to tie in how many thoughts to words happen, but it did not pan out:

Some experts estimate that the average human has 60,000 thoughts in a day, coming out to 2,500 thoughts an hour.

The human brain is responsible for roughly 20% of our total calories burned each day. If your total calorie burn for the day is 2000, then approximately 400 of those calories burned will be from brain activity.

One last point on language acquisition: if the graph is true, then the peak number of words learned in a year for a child is 10,375. This is also around the number of words needed in a language to easily discover new words with context clues.

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