Parents would have to rethink what they should let their babies hear—absolutely no talking nonsense or alien words.
A new study reveals babies have an inbuilt ability to pick out from birth. At three days old, even without understanding the meaning, babies were able to pick out individual words from speech. This study sheds new light to language acquisition ability of infants
Importance of Word Fragmentation
Before they learn to speak, babies absorb language skills from their surroundings. They must identify words from continuous speech. However, there is no obvious marker to pinpoint individual words from long sentences. This becomes a possible barrier in learning the language.
Previous studies reveal that in about six months, infants seem to have solved the problem of segmenting words. However, is it acquired through language exposure or innate ability? This is what the researchers wanted to know.
“Language in incredibly complicated and this study is about understanding how infants try to make sense of it when they first hear it. We often think of language as being made up of words, but words often blur together when we talk. So one of the first steps to learn language is to pick out the words,” said Dr. Ana Flò from Neurospin, one of the authors of the study.
Word Recognition in Infants
In a paper published in Developmental Science, a team of researchers from the University of Liverpool, SISSA in Italy, the Neurospin Centre in France and The University of Manchester investigated the ability of infants to segment human speech.
The team first familiarized the babies with a three-and-a-half minute audio clip. The clip contains four meaningless words which were buried in a stream of syllables. They then used a painless technique called Near-Infrared Spectroscopy to observe how much their brains have absorbed and which parts of the brain were active.
To know if they recognized the words, they had the babies listen to the words individually and observe their brain response.
“We had the infants listen to individual words and found that their brains responded differently to the words that they heard than to slightly different words,” said Dr. Perrine Brusini of the University of Liverpool. “This showed that even from birth infants can pick out individual words from language.”
Two Important Tools
The researchers identified two important tools the babies are born with which give them the ability to pick out words from a blur of sounds: the statistical co‐occurrences between syllables; and the so-called prosody.
Prosody refers to the melody of language. This allows to naturally recognize when a word starts and stops. Meanwhile, the “statistics” of language, refers to how we compute the frequency of when the sounds in a word are bunched together.
This study gives a new understanding to parents on how much their babies can absorb and how they are listening to them. “These data indicate that humans are born with operational language processing and memory capacities and can use at least two types of cues to segment otherwise continuous speech, a key first step in language acquisition,” researchers wrote.
There are many misconceptions on raising children in a bilingual environment. Although experts have previously explained otherwise, some parents still worry that it may cause speech delays, confusion, and mixing up of the two languages.
Here is another inspiration for parents to expose their children to more than one language early. According to a recent study, as early as infancy, it gives an advantage to the early development of their attention. And in the long run, it could give benefits to their cognitive development.
In a study published in Developmental Science, researchers at York University investigated how a bilingual environment affects six-month-old infants using two different experiments.
As they lay in a crib, infants were shown images in a screen above them. Meanwhile, there was a camera which records how their eyes move in different areas in the screen. Half of the infants on the experiment were raised in a monolingual environment, while the other half were raised in a bilingual environment.
During the first experiment, the infants were first shown images which are indicative of whether the next target image will be shown on the left or the right. For example, if the screen shows a pink and white image in the center, it will be followed by an attractive target image on the left. Meanwhile, if a blue and yellow image appeared, it will be followed by a target image on the right. These rules could be followed by all infants.
In the second experiment, the researchers changed the rules halfway. Tracking the babies’ eye movements, they found that those who were raised in a bilingual environment were quicker at learning the new rules and anticipating where the target image will appear.
The researchers highlighted that learning the new rules is difficult because the infants need to replace their response on the images with a contrasting one. Scott Adler, associate professor in York’s Department of Psychology and the Centre for Vision Research and co-senior author of the study explained:
“Infants only know which way to look if they can discriminate between the two pictures that appear in the center. They will eventually anticipate the picture appearing on the right, for example, by making an eye movement even before that picture appears on the right. What we found was that the infants who were raised in bilingual environments were able to do this better after the rule is switched than those raised in a monolingual environment.”
Previously there were studies which demonstrated how bilingual children and adults were better than monolinguals on completing cognitive tasks. However, this new study is revolutionary as it shows the cognitive benefits of bilingualism to infants who are not bilingual yet, and are just hearing the bilingual environment.
“By studying infants — a population that does not yet speak any language — we discovered that the real difference between monolingual and bilingual individuals later in life is not in the language itself, but rather, in the attention system used to focus on language,” said Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University and co-senior author of the study. “This study tells us that from the very earliest stage of development, the networks that are the basis for developing attention are forming differently in infants who are being raised in a bilingual environment. Why is that important? It’s because attention is the basis for all cognition.”