Learning language in the first years of life

By Dr Marina Kalashnikova, MARCS BabyLab

Language learning is one of the most remarkable features of early development. Babies seem to learn their native language or languages effortlessly and very rapidly.

The task of learning language, however, is not simple or trivial. In fact, it is one of the most complex cognitive abilities that we develop in our lifetime. So, how do our tiny babies learn language?

When do we start learning language?

While it could be assumed that language learning starts when the baby is born, babies actually begin the learning process while they are still in the womb. The auditory system develops around 6 months after conception, so after then, babies can hear the sounds from their environment. At this time, babies cannot hear specific sounds or words, but they can hear the rhythm and intonation of the speech of their mother and other voices close by, and they are able to use this to tune into the language that they will hear after birth.

Babies’ favourite kind of speech

When adults speak to young infants, they produce a special type of speech known as infant directed speech. It is characterised by exaggerated intonation, warm emotion, and simplified grammar. This is not just a cute and playful way of speaking to our infants – in fact, it is a powerful tool that parents unconsciously use to engage their infants in communication and provide them with the necessary information to learn the sounds and words of their language. Research has shown that infants who hear more infant directed speech (i.e., more words addressed directly to them) develop better language skills.

First words

Infants know many words before they start saying them. By the age of six months, babies can already understand several words (“mum”, “dad”, and their own name), and by 9 months, they understand as many as 50 words. Around their first birthday, babies start saying their first words, which usually refer to the people and objects in their daily environment (the most common first words are of course “mummy” and “daddy”). After that, the baby vocabulary continues to grow, and most toddlers are able to say over 250 words by their second birthday.

How do we know this?

Infancy researchers in the areas of psychology and linguistics investigate the early stages of language development to understand all the steps in this process and its relation to infants’ cognitive and social development. The MARCS Institute BabyLab at Western Sydney University is a world-leader in infancy research. Established in 1999, it hosts numerous research projects focusing on language development, early speech perception, and the precursors of reading skills. Over the years, our research has been able to address questions such as: how does mothers’ speech assist language development? how do infants learn the sounds of their language? how do infants learn the meanings of new words?

We use a variety of state-of-the-art research techniques. All of these are non-invasive and only require the infants to do simple tasks such as watch images on a screen or listen to sounds. All these tasks are conducted in a form of play sessions or games, so all the babies and caretakers visiting the BabyLab can have a good time while contributing to cutting-edge research. After every visit to the lab infants obtain a university degree – so we have some very respected two-year-old emeritus professors among our alumni!

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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