Home Features Best of 2014 BEST OF 2014 // #74: Babies say the darndest things

BEST OF 2014 // #74: Babies say the darndest things

BEST OF 2014 // #74: Babies say the darndest things
California, USA --- Caucasian baby speaking at podium --- Image by © John Lund/Stephanie Roeser/Blend Images/Corbis

How does a baby go from babbling to talking actual words?  In June, researchers discovered part of the answer: near the end of their first year, two areas of babies’ brains begin coordinating, leading to speech.
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At around 6 or 7 months, babies can distinguish vowel and consonant sounds.  When they reach 11 or 12 months, they’ve begun to really identify their parent’s native language, and the one their likely heard the most.  They begin to filter out other languages.  Around this time, the baby’s first words appear.

To discover how this transition begins to take place, Patricia Kuhl, a University of Washington researcher, decided to measure baby brain waves.  Using babies in both the 6-7 and 11-12 month ranges, she played separate recordings of both native and foreign languages and analyzes the resulting brainwaves.

When hearing the languages, 7 month olds had similar reactions in the auditory systems and in the motor system – used in mimicking sounds.  In the h11- and 12-month old groups, much more activity was detected in the auditory system when they heard their native languages.  When the foreign language played, their motor systems were lit up, indicating they were working harder to imitate those sounds.

Kuhl believes these brain patterns show that once babies reach 11 or 12 months old, they not only pay closer attention to words in their native language, but also have a easier time speaking them.  At that age, the auditory and motor systems begin to work together to allow for speech.  Kuhl was quick to note that ‘baby talk’ is an important part of that process.

“The idea that a young child at 12 months can hear you say something and then know what to do to replicate that signal with their own mouths is remarkable” – Patricia Kuhl

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