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Baby Brains Reveal Social Interaction is Linked to Learning a Second Language

First Posted: Jul 27, 2015 10:52 AM EDT

It turns out that social interaction may be best for teaching babies a second language. Scientists have found that early social behavior called gaze shifting is linked to infants' ability to learn new language sounds.

Gaze shifting is when a baby makes eye contact and then looks at the same object that the other person is looking at. It's one of the earliest social skills that babies use. In previous research, this behavior has been linked to a larger vocabulary in preschoolers. This is why the researchers suspected that it might be important earlier when babies are first learning the sounds of a new language.

In this latest study, 9.5-month-old babies from English-speaking households attended foreign language tutoring sessions. Over four weeks, the 17 infants interacted with a tutor during 12 25-minute sessions. The tutors read books and talked and played with toys while speaking in Spanish.

At the beginning and end of the four-week period, the researchers counted how often the infants shifted their gaze between the tutor and the toys that the tutor showed the baby. The researchers also measured the babies' brain responses to English and Spanish sounds while they listened to a series of language sounds while wearing and electroencephalography (EEG) cap.

"Our study provides evidence that infants' social skills play a role in cracking the code of the new language," said Patricia Kuhl, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We found that the degree to which infants visually tracked the tutors and the toys they held was linked to brain measures of infant learning, showing that social behaviors give helpful information to babies in a complex natural language learning situation."

The findings may give parents, caregivers and early childhood educators new strategies for teaching young children.

The findings are published in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology.

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