Babies’ brains process and practise language months before they utter their first words, according to research published by a team of neuroscientists at the University of Washington.
In the study, the brains of 7-, 11- and 12-month-old babies were monitored for activity with a brain scanner while they listened to English and Spanish syllables. The results revealed that the motor-function region of a baby’s brain — the part they use when speaking — was being activated. The researchers concluded that the babies were rehearsing the physical skills needed to talk, long before they were able to speak.
Dr Sarah Roseberry, director at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington says, “This is significant because babies of this age are not yet talking, but their brains are already being activated in preparation.”
So, while your 7-month-old may look nonplussed when you talk to him, he is actually busy thinking about and silently practising how he will respond one day. Researchers also found activity in the auditory region — the part of the brain used to process sound — when babies heard language. In younger babies, the level of activity was the same when they listened to Spanish and their native English, suggesting that their brains are not making distinctions between languages but focusing on all language.
By age 1, sound processing had changed. These babies showed increased activity in the motor-function region when they heard Spanish. Dr Roseberry explains, “This is because the babies are taking longer to work out how to say it.”
Their auditory region, by contrast, was most active when they heard English, their native language, showing they understood some of what was being said.
“As children hear more language over time, their brains get better at activating all of the different systems that they will eventually use to join in the conversation,” says Dr Roseberry. “This means that it’s critical that children hear a lot of language early in life, even before they are ready to talk.”
Babble baby talk
A key conclusion by the scientists involved in the American study was the value of parents engaging in “parentese” — long, drawn-out baby talk. So, abandon any concerns you have about sounding silly when talking to your baby.
A lilting, sing-song voice will capture bubba’s attention, especially if you’re alone, so he’s not distracted by background noise.
“Just listening to the sounds is very important to help your baby tune in and start learning to interpret language,” notes Professor Caroline Rowland of Liverpool University.
The long syllables, higher tones and exaggerated facial movements that a mum naturally uses with her baby provide a language template that is easier for an infant to follow.
“Stretching a vowel sound, like in ‘shoooooes’ or ‘baaaby’, makes it easier for your child to pick up on the word,” says Nairan Ramirez-Esparza, one of the authors of a US study on the impact of speaking “parentese” on language development.
“We use the term infant-directed speech (IDS) to describe the sing-song type of talk that we often use with infants and toddlers,” Dr Roseberry explains. “When using IDS, we use a range of frequencies in our pitch, put exaggerated pauses between words, and use simplified grammar. All of these features help babies to recognise and learn language.”
Research shows that children babble more when they hear IDS. The children who hear more IDS at 12 months have larger vocabularies at 24 months.
Read out loud
Don’t just think that your little one cannot understand when you read him a story. “Research tells us that children benefit from hearing new and different words,” Dr Roseberry says. “Looking at books together and talking about what you see can be a great way to introduce new and different words you might not use in everyday life.”
It helps to have favourite books that you read time and time again. The rhythm and familiarity of the same phrases will help your baby grasp the connection between words and objects.
“We also know that early book reading helps children physically learn about books — how to hold them, how to turn the pages — and establishes a pattern of reading that can last for years,” adds Dr Roseberry.
Chanting rhymes helps
Singing nursery rhymes is another behaviour we all naturally adopt when we have a baby, without really understanding why.
“Rhyming helps children practise basic phonological [sounds in language] awareness skills. If you were to ask an older child if ‘man’ and ‘pan’ rhyme, or to think of a word that rhymes with ‘lake’, you are challenging him to think about the sounds of language. These phonological awareness skills help children build their vocabulary and are important for later literacy,” says Dr Roseberry.
“Rhyming is very closely tied to later literacy skills, so nursery rhymes can be great tools to help build them. It’s never too early to introduce them.”
Switch off the television, too, as the background noise could inhibit your baby’s speech development. “Background television has been linked with shorter parent/child conversations, the use of less complex language between parents and children, and shorter play episodes for children,” Dr Roseberry points out. But if you’ve got a radio habit, don’t worry. “Radio does not seem to have the same negative effect as television.”
Ask your baby’s opinion
When you’re chatting with your baby, give him time to “reply”. “This teaches him the rhythm of conversation and encourages him to participate,” Dr Roseberry notes. “Even before he’s talking, he’ll have a lot to say by way of grunts, coos, gurgles and babbles. Respond to these contributions!”
Try to keep your sentences short and see if you can keep up a rally of interaction, even if his part is non-verbal. Explains speech-and-language therapist Nicola Lathey, “You are showing your baby that communication is a fun two-way process.”
To encourage this “back and forth” before your baby can talk, play “So Big”. Gently stretch your infant’s arms above his head and ask, “How big is (baby’s name)? Soooo big.” Then add, “Here I come!” and kiss his tummy or neck. Even a young baby will often hold his arms up, asking for the game to be continued. Respond to this gesture and you are engaging in a pre-verbal conversation.
At about 8 months, your baby will be able to follow your gaze, so you can direct him to an object with your eyes and then talk about it. For example, “It’s a ball, isn’t it? Can you see the ball?”
“If you and your baby are looking at each other, he’s more likely to be paying attention and trying to communicate with you,” says language expert Professor Elena Lieven.
Although he can’t yet talk, your baby can sign. “Lots of parents report that signing reduces frustration as children can communicate before they have the oral skills to do so,” Dr Roseberry says. “It doesn’t impede language development as long as it is used in conjunction with spoken language.”
When bubba's at the babbling stage, help him work out that the sounds actually mean something.
“Sit on the sofa with your baby and husband. Daddy goes out of the room and you call, ‘Dada Dada’,” says Lathey. “Daddy comes back in and tickles baby’s tummy and then goes out again. Repeat. In time your baby will start to copy you.”