How do our babies learn language and how should we talk to them?

By Dr Marina Kalashnikova, Western Sydney University - The MARCS Institute BabyLab

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 skills 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. This type of speech sounds simpler, happier, and warmer. 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 investigate the early stages of language development to understand all the steps in this process. The MARCS BabyLab at Western Sydney University is a world-leader in infancy research. Established in 1999, it hosts many research projects focusing on language development. 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?; and how do infants learn the meanings of new words?

We use a variety of research techniques. All of these are non-invasive and only require the babies 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!

The BabyLab is located on Bankstown, Kingswood, and Westmead campuses of the Western Sydney University. To participate, register your details on our website, www.westernsydney.edu.au/babylab, and our team will contact you to invite you for one of our exciting projects. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @MARCSBabyLab We look forward to meeting you!

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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