The brain only needs a small amount of storage to learn a language
A new study from UC Berkeley has investigated how much storage space your brain needs to learn its first language. Using a mathematical technique known as information theory, the team determined that the average adult only uses about 1.5 megabytes of storage for access to the entire English language.
“In terms of digital media storage, our knowledge of language almost fits compactly on a floppy disk,” wrote the study authors.
The brain sorts through data to make sense of a word or sentence, and researchers led by Frank Mollica at the University of Rochester set out to quantify how many bits of data are required. For example, the experts determined that the average English vocabulary set of 40,000 words requires about 400,000 bits of data storage.
The team used computer models to estimate the storage requirements needed for other factors as well, including language semantics and syntax, and discovered that approximately 12.5 million bits of information is necessary for language acquisition.
“Ours is the first study to put a number on the amount you have to learn to acquire language,” said study senior author Professor Steven Piantadosi. “It highlights that children and teens are remarkable learners, absorbing upwards of 1,000 bits of information each day.”
The study also revealed that linguistic knowledge focuses mostly on the meaning of words, as opposed to their complex arrangement.
“A lot of research on language learning focuses on syntax, like word order,” said Professor Piantadosi. “But our study shows that syntax represents just a tiny piece of language learning, and that the main difficulty has got to be in learning what so many words mean.”
The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.