Baby Talk: Children Practice Speaking Before They Ever Say a Word

First Posted: Jul 15, 2014 01:19 PM EDT

Long before your baby is actually speaking, he or she is probably practicing language. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that the brains of 7- and 11- or 12-month-olds are busy concocting what they will say in the future.

For the study, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle examined 57 infants at seven months via magnetoencephalography (MEG). They had the children propped up in the brain scanner to more closely monitor activity as the participants listened to syllables in both English and Spanish. At one year, the children were assessed again.

"Most babies babble by seven months, but don't utter their first words until after their first birthdays," said lead author Patricia Kuhl, who is the co-director of the UW's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, in a news release. "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 7-month-olds' brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words."

The imaging system revealed distinct activity in the regions of the brain where sound is processed and planned motor functions are needed for speech. As these areas were also active in the same regions when the children were younger (at seven months), the findings suggest that the infant brain is predisposed to respond to various sounds and ready to process them in the language centers of the organ.

Furthermore, as children practice these skills, it helps them to better transition and become more sensitive to their native tongues.

"Hearing us talk exercises the action areas of infants' brains, going beyond what we thought happens when we talk to them," Kuhl added. "Infants' brains are preparing them to act on the world by practicing how to speak before they actually say a word."

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