Science/Tech

Infants Begin Learning Speech Mechanics Long Before Their First Word; Speaking To Them Early Is Key To Language Development

Baby
Though many of us may assume our infant's babbles are just nonsense, a new study shows how these are actually the first iterations of language for them. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Babies are wonderful beings. Sure, they scream and cry uncontrollably, dribble everywhere, and you’re cleaning up after them constantly. But put all that to the side, and what you’re left with is a lovable little thing that always seems to be learning something new — it’s rather impressive, actually. One of their biggest moments comes when they utter their first word, and a new study now finds that in order for this to happen, infants begin rehearsing the mechanics of language much earlier.

“Most babies babble by 7 months, but don’t utter their first words until after their first birthdays,” said lead author of the study Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the university’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, in a press release. “Finding activation in motor areas of the brain when infants are simply listening is significant because it means the baby brain is engaged in trying to talk back right from the start, and suggests that 7-month-olds’ brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words.”

Previous studies, such as this one from last August, have shown that language development can begin even before the baby leaves the womb. The University of Helsinki study found that babies who heard so-called pseudowords like “tatota” while still in the womb were able to recognize them after they were born — as measured by brain responses. Once born, babies are able to differentiate sounds between various languages, according to the researchers of the current study, and they subsequently focus on the one particular language they’re surrounded by at around 7 to 8 months old. This is when they start to babble, and language development really takes off.

The researchers used brain imaging techniques to monitor activity in 57 infants who were either 7 months old or reaching a year old. Each one of them listened to the syllables “da,” which was derived from their native language, English, or “ta,” which was derived from their non-native language of Spanish. While the infants listened to these sounds, the researchers monitored the auditory areas of the brain as well as the areas responsible for motor activity involved with speech.

They found that the younger infants (the ones who were beginning to babble) were the only ones to exhibit activation in all areas of the brain involved. Meanwhile, older babies, who had already gotten used to the sounds and mechanics of speech in their native tongue, showed way more activity in the motor areas of their brain when hearing sounds from a non-native language. These findings indicate that the infants were learning long before their first words how to produce the sounds of their native language.

“Hearing us talk exercises the action areas of infants’ brains, going beyond what we though happens when we talk to them,” Kuhl said in the release. “Infants’ brains are preparing them to act on the world by practicing how to speak before they actually say a word.” Because of this, she suggested that parents begin speaking to their children early, even if it doesn’t seem like their child understands. So-called “parentese,” an exaggerated style of speech, helps them understand the mechanics of language slowly, and soon enough, they’ll be imitating it and eventually speaking real words.

Source: Kuhl P, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014. 

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