Human Intelligence

How do babies learn to talk?
Answered by Jennifer Horton
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  1. In the classic 1989 movie "Look Who's Talking," we get an inside look into the complex inner workings of the brain of a baby who hasn't yet learned to talk. It turns out the premise isn't too far from reality -- research shows babies are indeed astoundingly receptive to sounds even before birth and understand quite a bit before they can get their mouths to work quite the right way. In the womb babies jump in response to noises and they can recognize their mother's speech patterns. At birth, their brains come fully stocked with as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way -- about 100 billion [source: Bock]. So while they may not be able to talk just yet, it's definitely a start.

    Research also shows babies come with an innate aptitude for language, with one part of the brain responsible for recognizing speech and another for producing it. At first, as a baby's "googoos" and "gagas" make clear, the recognition part of the brain has a little bit of a head start. In research led by neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl, scientists played speech sounds and non-speech sounds for babies who were fitted with caps that measure brain waves. The recognition part of the brain lit up in response to the speech sounds, showing that even newborns can distinguish between speech and non-speech, yet the part of the brain responsible for speech production stayed dormant. By 6-12 months, though, that section of the brain gets more and more active, until at around 1 year old -- the time many babies utter their first words -- the two sections of the brain are synchronized, able to both hear and produce sound [source: NPR].

    As far as those Baby Einstein tapes and other "learning enhancement" tools go: Don't bother. Babies are born primed and ready with the ability to distinguish where words begin and end, as well as how to recognize emphasis. The best way to develop such innate abilities is simply to talk to them. Language learning is highly interactive: By 12 months old, babies are able to interpret words as labeling objects and they can start connecting visual stimuli with spoken words. Hearing those same words on a tape recorder doesn't have the same effect: it needs to be performed "live." And it doesn't matter if it's high-pitched baby-speak either. In fact, research shows that so-called "motherese" is actually helpful for babies and grabs their interest. So babble away, and if you're pregnant or around someone who is, watch your mouth: Baby's listening.

    More answers from Jennifer Horton »

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