Babies silently practise speaking way before they talk (Wired UK)

Institute for Learning

Babies’ brains process and
practise languages months and months before they ever utter their
first word.

This is the conclusion drawn by a team of neuroscientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
, who studied the brains of 7- and 11- or 12-month-old
babies using magnetoencephalography (MEG). The imagining system
works by picking up the magnetic fields produced by electrical
currents in the brain.

The investigating team, from University of Washington, had 57
infants aged seven months propped up in the brain scanner to
monitor the activity, while they listened to syllables in English
and in Spanish — the kinds of sounds a baby might start with
before forming words. The team also assessed babies aged around one
year, which is roughly when infants begin to speak. The authors
describe the two ages as ones “that straddle the developmental
transition from language-universal to language-specific speech

The imaging system revealed distinct activity in the region of
the brain where sound is processed, the superior temporal gyrus, as
well as the brain regions responsible for planning the motor
functions needed for speech. In the younger babies, all areas were
active when they listened to both English — heir native language
— and Spanish. This suggests their young brains are predisposed to
respond to all sounds, ready to process them in the language centre
where they begin to figure out how to actually say them. It shows
the brain is not yet making distinctions between languages, but is
focusing intently on everything coming its way and emphasising the
motor skill links.

For the one-year-olds, this had changed. They had increased
activity in the motor function regions when they heard Spanish, the
suggestion being it takes them longer to figure out how to say it.
It implies that the motor function regions, including the Broca’s
area, the cerebellum, and cortical regions, have a vital role to
play in learning to speak. The one-year-olds’ auditory brain
regions, by contrast, were at their most active when the babies
heard English, their native language. Complementary studies with
adults carried out by the Washington team show similar results to
the ones exhibited by the one-year-olds.

Baby listens to speech in a neuroscience experiment

A baby, looking
really intense. Which is understandable, considering the
multitasking feat it’s accomplishing — playing with a squishy
ball/learning a language/having a brain scan

UW (University of Washington)

“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,” said lead
author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the university’s Institute for
Learning and Brain Sciences.

She and her team write: “Hearing speech invokes an analysis by
synthesis process: auditory analysis of speech is coupled with
synthesis that predicts the motor plans necessary to produce it.
Both brain systems contribute to the developmental transition in
infant speech perception.”

This suggests, argue the authors, that we should actually be
doing the rather irritating long drawn out baby talk, known as
parentese, to teach infants. Since both the auditory and motor
regions are instigated at such a young age, no matter the language
heard, it’s important that adults and caregivers keep focusing on
this. The babies might only be able to process the syllables, and
be unable to talk back for months, but this is how it begins.

“Parentese is very exaggerated, and when infants hear it, their
brains may find it easier to model the motor movements necessary to
speak,” said Kuhl. “Hearing us talk exercises the action areas of
infants’ brains, going beyond what we thought happens when we talk
to them. Infants’ brains are preparing them to act on the world by
practising how to speak before they actually say a word.”

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