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Is that babbling and cooing designed just to make us melt? Or is your baby learning language?

Toddler reading a book with her mother
 

For example ...

The house is quiet. The baby has gone down for her nap. Finally, you’ve got a chance to catch up on the chores. But what’s that you hear over the baby monitor? Is that your little girl talking? She’s only eight months old! You always knew she was remarkable.

You hurry to her room and ease the door open. There she is, lying in her cot, happily chattering away. ‘Ba ba ba ba ba. Ga ga ga ga ga’, she burbles, catching sight of you. ‘Eeeee!’

All right, they’re not her first words. So what are they?

How babies learn language

Think about your own attempts to imitate another language. If you hear a Italian speaker say ‘grazie’, you might pick up the rolling ‘r’ sound. but do you know immediately how to make the sound yourself? It takes a bit of practice to get your tongue in the right position. Think of a baby trying to learn how to speak for the first time.

How do babies learn how to make the sounds they hear? Perhaps by cooing and babbling and copying the grown-ups around them.

Scientists Kuhl and Meltzoff think babies’ babbling isn’t simply random sounds strung together in an unbearably cute fashion. Instead, they believe babies are learning how to move their lips, tongues, mouths and jaws to make the sounds they hear you make.

Babies have a powerful ability to learn the language (or languages) they hear, and adults are very well-suited to helping babies learn. The special way we speak to babies – getting up close, drawing out our vowel sounds and pitching our voices high, for example – seems to be just what infants want and need when it comes to sorting out the sounds of speech. For more on this topic, see Speaking parentese.

Learning about speech sounds

Kuhl estimates that, at six months old, the average American baby has heard hundreds of thousands of examples of the vowel sound ‘ee’ as in ‘daddy’, ‘mummy’ and ‘baby’. Kuhl and her colleagues think that from these thousands of examples, babies develop a type of sound map in their brains that helps them hear the ‘ee’ sound clearly.

In a way, babies create perfect examples of speech sounds in their heads, with a type of target area around each sound. With their sound map for ‘ee’, for example, babies learn to pick out the ‘ee’ distinctly from the other sounds they hear. And sounds close to the ‘ee’ sound might be in the ‘target area’ around the perfect example, and the baby still hears it as an ‘ee’.

These perfect examples of speech sounds, called ‘prototypes’, have a profound effect on how babies hear speech and how they babble. They help ‘tune’ children’s brains for the language around them, so that they can hear the different sounds of speech clearly. Even when adults don’t speak clearly, babies seem to compare the mumbled sounds in grown-ups’ speech against the prototypes in their brains and figure out what they’re saying.

By the time they’re six months old, babies who hear the sounds of their culture’s language have developed a set of speech sound prototypes. They use these prototypes as building blocks when they begin to put together their own words, usually sometime around 12 months.

But first, they’ll need some practice making the sounds. By hearing, watching, and copying the adults (and brothers or sisters) around them, babies start babbling.

Learning through imitation

Babies love to imitate the sounds they hear adults make. This is why babies around the world seem to babble using the sounds of their families’ language.

In one research study, babies between three and five months old watched and listened to films of an adult making vowel sounds. With only a total of 15 minutes of exposure (over three days, five minutes at a time), even some of the youngest babies tried to imitate the adult speech, making similar if not perfect copies of the sounds they heard.

Even at these very young ages, babies might be developing what Kuhl and Meltzoff call a ‘mouth-to-sound map’. That is, they’re figuring out that different sounds are made by moving their lips, tongues, mouths and jaws in different ways.

And babies aren’t just using their listening skills to figure out language. They also seem to use something similar to lip-reading. Scientists have discovered babies would rather look at the face of a person who is saying the vowel sound they are hearing than see a face and sound that don’t match. 

What babies who are learning about speech need, it seems, is someone to talk to and listen to. And that someone is you.

Helpful parenting tips

There’s nothing quite as endearing as a happily babbling baby. Knowing that these sounds might be helping your baby put together the building blocks of speech is an added bonus. But to get to babbling, and from there to meaningful speech, your baby needs a good teacher.

  • Talk to your little one early, and talk often. Get up close so your baby can see how your lips move. Babies are wonderful copycats. 
  • Use ‘parentese’. Draw out your vowels and change the tone of your voice. 
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself – over and over again. Favourite songs, nursery rhymes and the words to favourite books give children lots of practice hearing the sounds of the language. 
  • When your baby babbles, don’t be embarrassed to babble right back. Babies learn early to ‘take turns’ with you in making sounds – think of these as early ‘conversations’! 
  • Above all, enjoy these early conversations with your baby. At first, you might not be able to understand your baby’s brand of babble and coo, but the words will come soon enough. In the meantime, get up close, and let your baby see and hear how it’s done.
If your baby is not babbling often, and not babbling with changes in tone and pitch by 8-10 months, speak to your maternal child health nurse or paediatrician. This might be a sign of a language delay.
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  • Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. New York: HarperCollins.

    Kuhl, P.K., Williams, K.A., Lacerda, F., Stevens, K.N., & Lundstrom, B. (1992). Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age. Science, 255, 606-608.

    Kuhl, P.K. & Meltzoff, A.N. (1996). Infant vocalizations in response to speech: vocal imitation and developmental change. Journal of the Acoustic Society of America, 100, 2425-2438.