July 15th, 2014
03:09 PM ET
Babies usually start speaking by their first birthday. But new research suggests talking to your baby stimulates his brain well before she utters those first words.
For the study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors compared how 7- and 11-month-old babies from English-speaking families processed sounds from English and Spanish.
Researchers at the University of Washington looked at 57 babies who were 7, 11 and 12 months old. The babies sat in an egg-shaped, noninvasive brain scanner that measures brain activation and listened to speech sounds played over a loudspeaker.
The researchers examined patterns of brain activation in areas of the brain that analyze sound, as well as areas that plan the motor movements required to produce speech.
At 7 months, infants responded equally to sounds from both English and Spanish.
“Babies are citizens of the world,” Dr. Patricia Kuhl, the lead researcher on the study, said. “They’re not committed to any language or any languages. They’re just open.”
At 11 months, however, the infants saw greater activation of the motor areas in the brain for English sounds. Kuhl said this suggests that as infants’ brains develop further, they focus in on sounds familiar to them.
“What we believe is happening is that the babies are dying to talk back,” Kuhl said. “It means that babies even at an early age are practicing and rehearsing and activating brains in a social way so that when we serve something to them, they’re attempting to volley back.”
These findings reinforce the importance of talking to your baby, instead of just plopping him or her in front of the television.
“When [babies] look at the TV set, they seem interested but their brains don’t learn,” Kuhl said. “Babies recognize and can distinguish the sounds only if they heard live speakers present to them – only if they were interacting socially.”
Dr. Gordon Ramsay, director of the spoken communication laboratory at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, said multiple elements are at play when infants learn how to speak.
“The message for parents is that speech acquisition in infancy is built upon a scaffold of sensory experience, motor activity and social interaction,” Ramsay said. “All these components need to come together in the natural resonant coupling between child, caregiver and environment if every child is to progress along the path to spoken language.”
However, Ramsay says the study should have followed the same babies through the course of their development, rather than examining different 7-month-olds and 11- and 12-month-olds.
“Because developmental timing is so important, and there is so much variability and delay within children, it’s really important to do longitudinal studies,” Ramsay said.
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