March 27 (UPI) -- According to a new study, the brains of kids store 12.5 million bits of information about language between birth and age 18.
Mastery of the English language isn't exactly built in. Children acquire it over time. To quantify this remarkable feat of cognition, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, developed computer models to analyze the processes of learning language semantics and syntax, as well as acquiring a sufficient vocabulary.
The analysis showed that by the time kids turn 18, they've acquired 12.5 million bits of language-related information. Most of that data, researchers determined, is related to vocabulary.
"A lot of research on language learning focuses on syntax, like word order," Steven Piantadosi, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, said in a news release. "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 work of Piantadosi and his colleagues -- published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science -- suggests language learners acquire several bits of information as they learn new words.
Each new word triggers the learner to ask a series of questions: Is a penguin a bird? Does it fly?
By the time a child has acquired the English language, he or she has amassed an impressive total of language-related information -- the equivalent of lots and lots of binary data, or bits and bytes, written as a series of ones and zeros.
"When you think about a child having to remember millions of zeroes and ones -- in language -- that says they must have really pretty impressive learning mechanisms," Piantadosi said.
The focus of human language learners on semantics, instead of syntax, contrasts with talking computer programs like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.
"This really highlights a difference between machine learners and human learners," Piantadosi said. "Machines know what words go together and where they go in sentences, but know very little about the meaning of words."
Of course, some kids acquire multiple languages, but researchers estimate the acquisition of a second or third language doesn't require quite as much data.
"The meanings of many common nouns like 'mother' will be similar across languages, and so you won't need to learn all of the bits of information about their meanings twice," Piantadosi said.