New research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science in Seattle suggests that long before babies say their first real word they’ve been practicing that word (and many others) in their heads. Babies begin developing language very early, and infants as young as 6-months-old understand words; by 7-months-old, they can distinguish speech sounds. By their first birthday, babies are focused on the sounds that they hear most frequently.
Lead study author Patricia Kuhn, co-director of the Institute, says that finding “activation in the motor areas of the brain when infants are simply listening is significant.” Kuhn believes this indicates that the baby’s brain is engaged in trying to talk back right away, and the infant is attempting to figure out how to correctly speak the words.
With a non-invasive brain scanner, Kuhn and her colleagues tested 57 babies who were either 7-months-old or 11- to 12-months-old, playing the sounds infants make (like “da”) in both English (the language their parents spoke) and Spanish while measuring their brain activation. At the sounds, brain areas associated with planning the motions of speech lit up.
For the 7-month-olds, these motor-planning regions activated equally for both English and Spanish, but the older babies showed an increased activation when the sounds that they heard were unfamiliar (or in Spanish). The researchers concluded that the older babies were working harder to determine which how to make the unfamiliar sounds, and suspect that these motor-planning areas of the brain might play a role in a baby’s transition to speaking in their native language.
The study findings, which were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, underscore the importance of talking to babies from birth. Kuhl reminds us that “hearing us talk exercises the action areas of infants’ brains.” Some baby talk with your infant helps to prepare them for speaking before they ever say their first word.