People might look at you strangely as you wander through the supermarket having enthusiastic conversations with your baby when you receive only “goos” and “gaas” in return.However, new research shows those one-sided conversations are actually helping switch on the mechanics in your little one’s brain which are needed to say their own words one day.
The University of Washington study of 57 babies aged between seven and 11 months found speech sounds – often exaggerated when adults speak to babies in “parentese” – stimulate areas of the brain that coordinate and plan motor movements for speech.
The infants’ brain activity was measured by a brain scanner which uses a noninvasive technique called magnetoencephalography to take readings.
The babies each listened to a series of native and foreign language syllables such as “da” and “ta” while researchers monitored their brain activity. The researchers observed brain activity in an auditory area of the brain responsible for planning the motor movements required for producing speech.
“Most babies babble by seven months, but don’t utter their first words until after their first birthdays,” co-director of the university’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences Patricia Kuhl said.
“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 seven-month-olds’ brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words.”
Interestingly, activation occurred in the seven-month-old babies’ brains when listening to sounds in their native language as well as in a foreign language, showing that infants of this age are responding to all speech sounds. But by 11 to 12 months of age, infants’ brains increase in motor activation to the non-native speech sounds relative to native speech. Researchers believe this shows that more effort is required for a baby to predict these foreign speech sounds, meaning the experience of listening to sounds from their native language in the previous months has already helped develop their language perception.
Professor Kohl believes the results are proof of the importance of talking to babies during social interactions, even if they’re not yet talking back.
“Hearing us talk exercises the action areas of infants’ brains, going beyond what we thought happens when we talk to them,” she said. “Infants’ brains are preparing them to act on the world by practicing how to speak before they actually say a word.”