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Babies Understand More Language Than We Think

Katlyn Joy |27, July 2014


A new study out of the University of Washington looked at infants, some at 7 months, and others at 11 months, while observing brain activity, to determine their perception of language.

The babies listened to a series of syllables in their native language first, and brain activity was observed, specifically in the parts connected with auditory senses, but also in a region of the brain called Broca's area. This part of the brain is associated with higher level speech formation.

The babies also were given samples of syllables from a foreign language, to see their reactions. Infants at 7 months didn't react any differently than they did to their own language. However, 11 month olds didn't react the same to the foreign language as they did to their native language. At this point, infants are becoming more specialized in discerning their own language, and less able to hear differences in foreign languages. Their native language is becoming their own.

For the study, babies from only English-speaking homes were given samples of Spanish to listen to, while infants from Finland heard Mandarin language. The results were consistent in both groups.

Patricia Kuhl, neuroscientist and author of the study says the results tell parents again what they've been hearing for some time; it's important to read and talk to children from birth. The natural way adults like to talk to babies, with exaggerated sounds and gestures are helpful, as well.

We know that infants have better receptive language than expressive, and that continues for some time. What we are still unraveling is just how much they understand before speaking. This study points to the reality that a baby's brain is receptive to language and is processing sounds mentally far before uttering the first adorable, "Ah!" or "Oooh!"

"Understand that they want to talk with you — serve and volley — so give them a chance to talk back," Kuhl said.

As adults we lose the ability to hear sounds not used in our native languages, which is why it is so hard to learn a foreign language. This study shows that process of weeding out the unfamiliar begins earlier than we knew.

To perform the study, Kuhl and her associates used magnetoencephalography, a process that measures the tiny magnetic fields produced when the neuron's in the babies' brains are fired. The machine uses superconducting sensors which are helium-cooled, because the signals are so faint. This requires shielding to protect from any outside magnetic forces, including Earth's own magnetic field.

Kuhl compared the device to a giant hair dryer from Mars. The "hair dryer" costs multimillions, however.

The area of the brain seen responding to language stimulation, Broca's area, is known to be connected to motor activity. However, we know from studies previously done that hearing is influenced by what we see. Sensory parts of the brain are intertwined and we may not know the full extent of how different areas of the brain are engaged in different processes.

Ways to Build Your Baby's Language Skills

Talk to your baby.

Everywhere. All the time. About anything, really. While giving your baby a bath, talk to him/her about the body parts as you wash them. At the grocery, tell him/her the names of the different items, what color they are, how we eat them. Talk so much you grow sick of your own voice, because your baby is soaking it all in.

Read to your baby from day one.

No baby is too young for reading. Read books that engage your baby with colorful illustrations, but even more so, with fun language play like repetitions that can be anticipated and eventually joined in with, and rhymes. Do fingerplays and nursery rhymes, and sing even if you can't carry a tune in a bucket.

Have conversations with your baby.

Your baby learns the rhythms of speech this way. Let your voice rise when asking a question, and pause to give your baby time to respond. When he/she vocalizes, respond as if you know just what he is saying, because before you know it, you will. Especially if you've been giving him/her plenty of speech stimulation.

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