UW researcher Patricia Kuhl's research into the social foundations of language learning has earned her one of the top awards in her field.

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Patricia Kuhl has long been recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on how babies learn to talk.

Now her colleagues have made it official, awarding her the 2015 George A. Miller Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience, an annual award that acknowledges scientists working “at the cutting-edge of their discipline.”

Kuhl, who co-directs the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, accepted the honor from the Society for Cognitive Neuroscience at the organization’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

She lectured about the social foundations of learning and discussed  how she and another researcher in her lab, Ping Mamiya, are combining neuroscience and genetics to figure out why some adults are better at learning a second language than others.

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Our brains are most primed to learn a new language within the first seven years of life.

Learning a second language later takes a lot of mental effort, tapping our abilities to plan, reason and pay attention.

Those abilities, in turn, rely on the strength of  nerve connections in the front part of the brain.

Mamiya is exploring how variants of a particular gene influence the development of those connections in different individuals and whether those differences could predict how well someone learns a second language.