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A significant character in my story is a young man, late teens early twenties or so, who shortly before the story began had his mind wiped almost completely. All memories, all knowledge, and all skills more complicated than what an animal can do were completely wiped out of his mind permanently. Shortly after, he mutated into a supernatural creature, and since these mutations' exact forms are often in response to and in defense against the situations they happened in, one of the various supernatural abilities he obtained was a superhuman memory. While he doesn't get any of his old memories back, he now has perfect recall and unlimited storage space in his brain for new ones. Whatever he thinks or experiences, he can remember it flawlessly forever.

The main plot revolves around him being found by someone who, due to her own supernatural traits, can't be remembered by anyone at all... except for him. So she winds up taking on the duty of looking after him and keeping him out of trouble, while also trying to figure out where he's from and get him home.

But what I'm trying to get a sense of is just how much exposure to the English language this character's going to need to crack the code and start understanding it himself. We obviously have babies as a reference, but given that this guy has a basically-fully-developed mind and an infinitely superior ability to remember what he hears, obviously the process is going to be faster for him. But I need to get a better sense of how fast, and whether it would be realistic for him to start being able to speak in the middle of the cross-country road trip that constitutes the plot, or if I'm going to have to wait for sequels or a timeskip before this guy could realistically become verbal. This timeframe is crucial to know, because for various reasons, until he becomes verbal, I can't really add more members to the main cast besides these two.

How much exposure to human speech would it take for someone to learn a first language when they have no prior memories or knowledge, but the brain of an adult and a flawless memory?

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  • $\begingroup$ I dont have an answer but I can tell that your character will be slower to learn everything. A baby and small child have a developing brain that is trying to learn more. Children in multi-language families can learn those languages at speeds and levels that they wouldnt at an older age. Your adult will have a developed brain no longer in the learning stage. Memory does not guarantee learning. I can recall several songs down to the detail, but that does not make me able to sing as good or fast as they do. Your character still needs to learn how to form words and their tendences. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Oct 8 '21 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ I can't give you a concrete answer on how many weeks/months it'd take for your character to learn language but I'm almost positive that the current answers are overshooting it. Not to single out @Penguino but saying "there is something inherent in babies immature minds that helps them pick up language rapidly" is a huge oversimplification that seems to be played out in other answers as well. Under average circumstances it may be true, but even then we tend to overlook the impact of different language learning methods and time investment. The real deciding factor, accounting for those ---- $\endgroup$
    – user71648
    Oct 11 '21 at 0:12
  • $\begingroup$ ----differences, is neuroplasticity. I'm not well-read on the subject so I'd encourage you to research it a bit yourself, but the adult brain is capable of growing and changing itself even under imperfect circumstances. With an infallible memory, and starting from scratch without having to work to overwrite old neural pathways? It would really just take as long as you'd want it to take, with a minimum of perhaps a month and a maximum depending on how exactly the recall works and what the memory erasure physically did to his brain $\endgroup$
    – user71648
    Oct 11 '21 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ That's all assuming you mean for the perfect memory to be a useful asset to your character of course, if you really want to get into it perfect memory might turn out to be a disability depending on how inefficient the recall is $\endgroup$
    – user71648
    Oct 11 '21 at 0:20
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First aspect: an adult personality and mental apparatus

In one hand what you describe, an adult with basic skills and brain but with no memory of language might be seen as a mild case of amnesia where you forget a basic skill and will have to re-learn it normally. I'll point out that language SHOULD be seen as a basic human skill to a certain level. Animals that you put as a paragon have very complex means of communication, they just don't have language. Buy I will assume you have some specific reason to kill this mental organ in particular, and go with it.

So this man when exposed to a social situation where people normally would be talking will immediately have the sensation that there is something he should know that he forgot. Motivation to learn is very important for learning a new language and immersion too, so those two chiefly important aspects would seem to indicate a surprisingly fast rate of learning.

Second aspect: perfect clues on situational uses of words

A perfect memory would allow subject in case to consider in an instant all the previous situations where the same words, tones, gestures where used. Therefore with some time he'd be able to construct phrases and test them. A normal student might remember a few sentences after a foreign language class, this student will remember them all.

A careful system of verification would be a very valuable set of language tools to acquire in order to learn faster, if the character is smart. Expressions like does that make sense? Is this right? How do you say? etc

What this means is that after a while the character should be able to construct exact phrases and never forget them again. Once again, based on experience, if you have a language class where you learn smartly, you can learn several sentences and words, but the normal student will forget many of them very soon. And the more sentences he'd learn the more he'd forget since it would be impossible to practice all the sentences at the same time. Your character wouldn't have this limitation.

Third aspect: how much time before making out sounds and words?

The remaining problem is the starting phase. How long for your character to understand the concept of "word", that is, a sound used in a way to convey a conventional meaning within a system of such words and conventional meanings? Would the tone sensibility be part of his basic skills or would he need to learn that too? Maybe singing some songs would unlock this knowledge in a few days? How long before catching the causality between the sounds of dialogues and the social behaviors? Maybe the unexplained interactions between people would allow subject to deduct there had to be some information exchanged (shown, passed) by the means of "those sounds".

In summary odds are in favor of a surprisingly rapid learning curve but it would vary much upon the learning context and opportunities, specially the teachers and the specific knowledge those might have.

In the perfect scenario, after acquiring the basic tools of language, every conversation would count as an individual language class for this subject and learning 3 or 4 times faster than a normal person. In any case, beyond that he'd be able to "replay" in his memory situations to build specific sentences similar to those recorded, allowing him to express himself by slowly composing sentences in a way a normal person simply couldn't, no matter how much they'd reflect upon it.

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Your character has Echolalia (Wikipedia), a speech pattern observed in children still learnig to speak or people with a psychiatric disorder like autism.

In short: instead of forming new sentences that represent a thought, the person repeats a sentence another person spoke when they had a similar thought.

For example, a child might enjoy a song his teacher sang at circle time, and then later ask to sing it at home by saying “It’s circle time” instead of saying the name of the song. (source: 3 Things You Should Know About Echolalia)

I once saw a documentory about a person with autism that was utterly unable to form new sentences (or at least groups of words) they've never heard in their life. As a young adult they've heard so many phrases that you didn't notice their echolalia anymore, but they reported having a really hard time at school and being called "the human cassette recorder".

So the solution for your character is to sit in front of a radio, tv, tablet, whatever device and listen to as many people speak in different situations as possible. That can also offer funny plot twists if they repeat annoying ads or cartoon characters.

As for the time frame: the autistic person was able to attend a regular school at the age of 6, but their speech pattern was very noticable to their peers at that age. Radio and TV were available when they grew up, but I have no idea about how much exposure they were allowed. Your super human will probably have more time and opportunities for targeted exposure (meaning: they can chose a YouTube or other media channel and speed up the playback for faster learning) and will probably need less sleep and play time than a child, but I recon it will still take several weeks until they would be able to hold a meaningful conversation and several months until they might hide their condition from unsuspecting humans.

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Your character is an inborn musician.

https://www.labroots.com/trending/genetics-and-genomics/17826/infant-study-suggests-musical-ability-innate

...research has suggested that musical abilities have a genetic component. Now a study has tested the musical abilities of infants who are too young to have been trained, and the results suggested that some musical talents are not learned but are something people are born with...scientists assessed how well infants could differentiate between sequences of major and minor (high and low) musical tones at six months of age. The research confirmed what has been observed in adults (regardless of training) - around 30 percent of infants could discriminate between the tones and 70 percent could not.

The inborn ability to understand tones and the mood in music is what infants use to learn language. They can pick up the tones used in speech to them and others and from this, deduce the meaning of the words, at least words and phrases as used in a social context. When his memory is wiped, he keeps this.

Your character will have to learn nouns one by one. But he listens to the radio for a week straight and he remembers every song. Through the rest of the book, he communicates using song lyrics. He gets the notes right too. And very fortunately for all involved the year is 1977, and there are a lot of great lyrics to choose from.

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Your superhuman may have problems in learning to speak at all. There is something inherent in babies' immature minds that helps them pick up language rapidly. It is typically much harder for an adult to learn a new language from scratch, despite the fact that they appear to have all the advantages (over a baby) of logic, reasoning, (memory?), cultural awareness of what language is, and an existing language to scaffold/translate the to-be-learned language to.

In the rare examples of 'wild' children (found after spending the first few years of their life without communication with other humans), many of them remain a-vocal for the rest of their lives despite attempts to teach them language.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do we know for sure that's due to their developing brain, or is it the fact that there's so little already in the brain? Another person I ran this by suggested it was the latter and that thus this character would learn extremely rapidly. $\endgroup$ Oct 9 '21 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Cyrus Drake I think that is a question for developmental psychologists, not amateurs like me, to answer. But I doubt that adults have difficulty learning a second language because their brain doesn't have enough room. $\endgroup$
    – Penguino
    Oct 9 '21 at 2:18
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    $\begingroup$ I believe the key word here is exposure. Babies are exposed to the language 24/7 and simply have no other option but to learn it. Compared to this, one hour a week and zero real practice simply doesn't have a chance to succeed. When willing to undergo intense training, adults can easily outperform babies. $\endgroup$ Oct 11 '21 at 6:36
  • $\begingroup$ @John Dvorak not sure how true that is for language learning specifically. Children speak their 'native' language without accent, but adult learners will usually have an accent (and often make minor grammatical errors) when speaking a second language - even after decades of immersion in that second language. As an example, my mothers-in-law was anative Dutch speaker. She moved to an English-speaking country in her early 20's, but retained a recognisable accent (when speaking English) for the next seventy years $\endgroup$
    – Penguino
    Oct 17 '21 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ "Babies learn languages fast" is such an overblown myth. have you ever talked to a 2 year old? i can guarantee that an adult who studies a language under total immersion, with a personal language trainer 24/7 with infinite patience (ie. mother) and no other obligations will speak quite a lot better than the child after 2 years. now, pronunciation is a different matter. The ear learns to recognize and differentiate sounds at a young age and then looses this ability. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Oct 17 '21 at 21:24
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To prepare/restore the basics: say 9 months

The human embryo already learns by listening to sounds in the womb. Certain meaningful (formant) frequencies will develop more connections to the inner ear than other frequencies. Head musculature is prepared to articulate voiced and fricative sounds / plosive sounds, and nerve fibers should be (re-)connected to the future speech production center in the brain. Both brain parts could be partially hardwired, but as you talk about an "animal stage" that would not need to pose issues. Animals can hear, make sounds to communicate, and some animals can learn language. It will take some time to restore the basic physiology to connect the senses and the muscles to enable speech, which is quite complex. Face posture and visual perception are involved too. Your human adolescent patient lost all that. He will be able to do the trick again, but it will take some time to restore the basics.

After that, with these nice memory abilities, it could go fast. Weeks, a few months...

Music would help

Already mentioned in other answers. Put the radio on, and you'll have speech and music combined. Also in the above preparation stage.

Friends would help

Just letting him listen to lullabies won't do the trick. Conversation is two-way traffic. There should be listening and response.

Movies with subtitles, to learn to read

Maybe it would be feasable to teach reading, before attempting conversation. It would help the adolescent to comprehend the structure of spoken language. A person with perfect memory would have an enormous advantage when learning to read and pronounce written words.

Motivate and educate. Be careful about giving the adolescent too much power

...or he will just go play with these powers and put language priorities second. The adolescent will need incentives, motivation is important in any learning process. Your patient is wiped. He won't remember he is human, or that learning speech would help in any way. He has no trouble remembering things, but it will be difficult to let him assign meaning and integrate memories into the bigger picture. Adolescents need to develop a coherent world view and personal identity, a self-image. I'd be careful giving this adolescent too much power, before a certain state of self-conciousness is reached, and certain social abilities is developed. Toddlers with superpowers can be very dangerous!

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  • $\begingroup$ @CyrusDrake thank you for editing my answer text ! Lots of these corrections I thankfully accept as tips for future answers. One of the reasons I like being active on WB is learning better ways to express myself in English. Your edit really helps.. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Oct 9 '21 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ No problem! I'm just hoping I didn't misinterpret anything you said. $\endgroup$ Oct 9 '21 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ @CyrusDrake you think my answers are too complicated ? or the language is ? $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Oct 9 '21 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ No, it's just hard to correct grammar when someone's talking about a subject they know more than you about. It's easy to misinterpret what they were trying to say the less you know about the subject they're talking about. I'm just hoping I didn't do that. $\endgroup$ Oct 9 '21 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ good to know. Have a nice day! $\endgroup$ Oct 9 '21 at 13:16
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Several months

To learn a completely foreign language needs 720 hours according to this source. As such, assuming they spend 8 hours a day learning, which is reasonable. They have a lot of other things to learn and they need to sleep.

At this level, they'll speak like this.

The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements. This is a limited ability to converse and really only a step towards real fluency.

Don't expect them to hold a conversation, but after three months they should be able to speak slightly better.

I wouldn't expect perfect memory to have that good of an impact. It'll help with obscure words, but not with complex grammatical rules. Perfect memory will help for writing, where they have time to adapt their knowledge.

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