HER FINALIST PROJECT: Figuring out the concentrations of different gases in the atmosphere

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: When she was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, Lise Menn's parents always wanted her to be a scientist. "Physics was the glamour science right after World War II," she says. Because they lived very close to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, her mother (who "had ambitions to be a chemist, but that didn't happen") took her to public nights at the observatory. Her parents helped her check out all sorts of books from the local public library on famous women scientists.

When she was in high school, they encouraged her to find a Swarthmore professor to help her design a research project to enter in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and other contests. Menn called around—"I wasn't very shy"—and found a physics professor who helped her write a proposal to study the atmospheric absorption of sunlight at different angles to figure out the concentrations of different gases in the atmosphere. She doesn't remember many specifics of the project. "I didn't understand what I was doing all that well," she says. "I didn't have the physics to work it out." Still, coupled with her high scores on the exam Westinghouse gave at the time, she earned a trip out to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1958 as a talent search finalist.

THE EFFECT ON HER CAREER: Already familiar with the Swarthmore physics department, Menn enrolled there as a physics major (and wound up rooming with Jane Richardson, née Shelby, who was also a 1958 Westinghouse finalist). She thought it was important to major in a hard science. She had, however, a side love: She had long been intrigued by linguistics and was inspired by a book called The Story of Language, in which author M. Pei noted that by comparing the structures of various languages, you could reconstruct the one that must have been spoken as an ancestor of our current Indo-European tongues.

"The idea that you could peer that far back in time—when the actual words and speakers were dead but the patterns still survived without speakers, like the grin on the Cheshire cat—that made the hair on my arms stand up," she says. "It was the most romantic, ghostly thing I'd ever read in science."

She ultimately ended up majoring in math, and minoring in linguistics. She then went to Brandeis University in Massachusetts for graduate school in math. There, "I discovered what real mathematicians were and I wasn't one of them," she says. So, because she had married another graduate student and, in short order, had her hands full with Stephen, the first of her two sons, and Daniel Joseph, both born by the time she was 24 years old, she decided to pause her education at a master's degree and figure out what she wanted to do next.

It didn't take her long to come back to linguistics. Actually earning her degree in the field, however, was painfully slow. "There wasn't any money for babysitters," she says. "I didn't get to school full time until the younger one was in kindergarten. I would trade babysitting with other mothers." But in the larger sense, her sons weren't an impediment to her linguistic career. In fact, they helped it along.

Some friends of Menn's, who were graduate students at Harvard University, loaned her books from the library on children's language development. What Menn read was "not like what I was seeing in my own kitchen with my second kid," she says. Textbooks said that toddlers learning to speak would say the first consonant of a word and the vowel ("mih" for milk, "doh" for dog). "That is the majority pattern, but in fact lots of kids don't do that," she says. "Instead, if a word ends in a consonant, they'll change the first consonant to match it." Little Danny Menn was calling dogs "gogs."

So his mom called up famed child language researcher Roger Brown in the Harvard psychology department and asked if he'd ever heard anything like that. He told her to write it up. She did and, using her home address rather than an institutional affiliation—which she didn't have—she sent the paper to the journal Lingua, where it was published in 1971.

Menn earned her PhD in linguistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where her husband had found a job (although she soon moved back to Boston after the marriage ended). For her dissertation, she did a case study of how one small boy named Jacob learned to speak. She transcribed and studied hundreds of hours of his babbling and early words as she babysat him from age 12 to 21 months; his parents were junior Harvard linguistics faculty, so they didn't find this strange. She saw that a given child would say the same word a number of different ways. She discovered that before a child would come up with regular patterns to simplify English words, he would go through a period where similar words would influence each other.

The work might not have been possible if she weren't a mom herself. Much of the theory of children's language development, she notes, had been developed by people who weren't moms and "if they were dads, I don't think they listened to kids a lot when they were babies."

Menn's work, on the other hand, "served as inspiration for much of the fieldwork and diary studies of children that followed," says Andrea Feldman, a former student of Menn's who has also taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Menn took a job in 1986. Her notes on Jacob "are still being studied by child language researchers," she says, adding that this focus on "child-centered data from a multitude of linguistic perspectives has revolutionized the field of child language research."

WHAT SHE'S DOING NOW: Menn taught and researched both children's language development and aphasia—that is, linguistic problems resulting from brain damage—at the University of Colorado at Boulder up until her recent "retirement," although she's still working with students and researching.

"What I'm really interested in is how our brains process language: What happens in the magic half second between when sound waves hit your ear and when you understand approximately what the person speaking intended you to understand?" It's an incredibly packed half second, as is the half second between when words stir in your mind and when something comes out of your mouth. Menn's research has helped her understand that, contrary to earlier theories, "children have to discover their language. They don't have a lot of inbuilt prior knowledge of language." Instead, what they have is an impressive ability to learn to find the patterns in what's going on around them—and because a lot of what's going on around them is people speaking, children by trial and error and a lot of effort learn to sound like the adults in their lives.

To share these and other theories, Menn is, in her retirement, writing a general interest book on linguistics. She's also traveling to exotic places such as Finland and Brazil to give lectures as well as enjoying reading her sons' work, now that the world has benefited from her study of their language development. Stephen Menn is a professor of philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, and "Danny" (who now goes by Joseph) is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.