Like a small child, we’re learning the language

You take your newborn home from the hospital, place it in its crib and start gazing at it in wonder. You can’t help but speak to it in a high-pitched, overly enunciated voice. You wonder if you are getting through, if your newborn has any idea who you are and what you are saying.

UW researchers have a surprise for you. Little Brandon or Jessica is paying a lot of attention to what you are saying from day one. Language comprehension starts early: in six months, your infant will be able to tell the difference between English and Swedish. Your somewhat ridiculous “parentese” is exactly the kind of talk your baby needs to set language patterns, Speech and Hearing Sciences Professor Pat Kuhl and others report in our cover story on “Baby Talk.”

There are other surprises for you in this issue. “Doing What Comes Naturally” looks at the benefits of borrowing from Mother Nature. The secrets of spider spit, mollusk shells and slug slime could lead to stronger suspension bridges, picture windows that heal themselves, or a miracle coating for firefighters. Here’s another surprise: a weekly tennis game or even a daily regimen of jogging is not enough to keep you totally fit, say UW sports medicine physicians. In “This Sporting Life” they advocate a balanced package of exercises to achieve overall fitness. Last, there is the article on our surprising new provost—C. Wayne Clough—a former engineering dean, an expert on tunnels and earthquakes, who also happens to love William Faulkner and Kurt Vonnegut.

Though Columns is little more than a baby (4 years old in December), we’ve been trying to learn the language of this amazing University. In the following pages are some of the lessons we have learned so far.