blogitto ergo sum

March 13, 2011

#171 – Deb Roy’s TED TALK: from gaga to water

Deb Roy. TED talk, March 2011

Have you ever been exposed to the magic of a baby learning to talk?  have you ever been part of the transition from code words such as baba and gaga that only parents, siblings and caretakers can decode to a clear language understood by all?  if you haven’t, try it.  it’s magical [and takes lots of patience].

such patience however is nothing compared to Deb Roy‘s patience.

first, a treat. the following 37 seconds audio file is a condensed wonder capturing how Deb Roy’s first-born son mastered the word “water” in 6 months.  the initial code word, by the way, was gaga.

from gaga [NOT a lady] to water: water-hp-2_composite.wav [click the link]

amazing. but wait; there’s more.

Deb Roy is a researcher at MIT.  he is the director of the Cognitive Machines group at the MIT Media Lab.  he’s also an entrepreneur – the founder and CEO of bluefin labs.

Earlier this month, Deb delivered the most fascinating TED talk titled “the birth of a word”.  what everyone will remember though is “from gaga to water.”

imagine that you could track how a baby gets her/his vocabulary.  imagine each word that the little one learns can be tracked from the strange approximation of the word way back to clear pronunciation.  Deb Roy did it.  and while at it, like a good innovative researcher, he and his team developed a couple of models and visualizations to illustrate word relations in time and space.  amazing.

my past includes one academic year @ the Tel Aviv University Communication Disorders School.  it took me less than a year to realize that communication is not a strength among the school’s faculty.  if you clicked their link, you noted that communication is still not something they can be proud of.  however, the linguistics and language development courses i took make me only appreciate more the scope and depth of Roy’s project.  I think it was J. Piaget who used observations of his own kids to develop his theories about child and language development. can’t imagine how his research would have evolved if he had access to today’s technology. Deb Roy [and team] has 90,000 recorded hours of Roy’s son life.  in his own words, it’s “the largest home video library” around.  imagine having to analyze, transcribe, identify patterns…  all for the sake of understanding the wonders of language development.  a new-born with no language, who uses crying as the only mean of communication takes 2-3 years to master a language.  if exposed to 2 languages it may take longer, but eventually the kiddo will be fluent and with no foreign accent in both languages.  patience does pay off.  a baby can do it, without any language to begin with, but we, by the time we are 13-14 struggle with every new language we aspire to learn.  the older we get, the harder it gets .

Kant, which i ended up studying after leaving the communication disorders behind me, believed that we are born with a priori schemes or concepts that are like templates into which our a posteriori experiences get fitted in.  A priori knowledge was for Kant the definition of  knowledge that is universal, necessary and independent of experience.  from language point of view, it means that every human is born with the ability/potential to learn A LANGUAGE.  all languages [well most] share some basic forms.  not 100% related, i remember the research that demonstrated that babies can generate all sounds, independent of their birth place and parents tongue.  it’s the environment reinforcement of a small subset of those sounds, unique to the spoken language around them, that determines which sounds the baby will keep on making for the rest of its life and which, with no reinforcement or rewards, will slowly die.  too lazy to search for the data, if my memory serves me right, we lose the ability to pronounce it all gradually.  By the time we are  5-6 YO the “decay” of this ability escalates, though, of course, there’s a range.  some of us are indeed better with mastering languages. guess it’s those among us who are still children…

First 400 words: the most complete record of a single child’s speech development ever created. Source:

if you want to see the details of each word, how many times the caregivers repeated it before the kiddo started saying it, and how long before he mastered it, click HERE for the interactive chart.

curious?  did I mention the word-time-social media charts he created?  other applications of the model developed to analyze the language acquisition process? some of the business opportunities the models developed for this research are used by bluefin labs.

by now, I’m sure, you are more than ready to sit back and watch this amazing TED Talk.


NOTE: just before i was ready to press the “publish” button, running a final check on my resources, i found a reference to Deb Roy’s wife Professor Rupal Patel, who wasn’t only the mommy, but also a researcher in this project.  sadly, only Forbes and Apple which brags about the choice of Apple’s products for this project mention her as the mother and researcher.  the husband?  not so much. dare i judge?  More about Rupal HERE



  1. Yael, you are sure going to love Al Seckel’s presentations.

    I heard him at last year’s The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE) annual conference in May.

    Comment by Madhumita Datta — March 13, 2011 @ 21:27 | Reply

    • not so much. 😦 saying “mis-wired” isn’t interesting enough if you say nothing about it. it’s like a marketing presentation – makes you feel good, but without substance.

      Comment by yael wagner — March 13, 2011 @ 22:07 | Reply

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