Sunday, April 3, 2011

Babies Learning Language

Bethany said her first word the other day.  "Da!" for Dad.  I'm not surprised because it is the one word we have been repeating to her more than any other word.  She's been babbling "dahdahdah" for a month or so now, so she has the hang of forming the syllable.  But now she seems to direct it towards her Dad.  She does it if she wants his attention and he's ignoring her, or when he first comes into view, and it's a sharper 'a' sound than he usual 'dah'.  He walked out of the room yesterday and she chased after him saying 'Da!  Da!  Da!'

I think it is so exciting that she is finally connecting sounds to specific objects.  Not very many objects, yet, but I figure it's a big mental leap to make the connection that when we talk we're not just making sounds, but conveying meaning.  I heard most babies understand words before they speak them, but with Bethany I reckon she's just made the conceptual connection at the same time she spoke it.  I have been trying in vain to get her to look at objects when I name them (including her Dad), or respond to her name, for months, but she has seemed completely oblivious.  I mind as well have been babbling nonsense myself, as far as she was concerned.  It is as though she has had a lightbulb moment and got the idea of language and decided to try it out at once.

So I thought I'd do a bit of reading on language development.

Lise Eliot has a whole chapter on 'Language and the Developing Brain' in What's Going On In There? and I've drawn much of this blog post from what she's written.  I've also drawn on An Introduction to Language by Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams.

Babies apparently start to comprehend language as meaningful language around nine or ten months.  By twelve months an average child understands about seventy words!

Babies start by learning vocab.  Our brain uses two main areas to comprehend language.  One part,  which is up the back of the brain, stores the meaning of words like a dictionary.  The other part, which is in the left frontal area, stores grammatical rules.  The connections in the back 'dictionary' brain grow crazily between eight and twenty months, whereas the left frontal area grows rapidly between fifteen and twenty-four months, which explains why children start by saying single words and progress to combinations and sentences later.  The neural pathways that make for quick processing of information in these two parts of the brain are not fully developed until about four to six years.

Babies are born with the ability to distinguish between the sounds of all human languages, but over the first year they lose this ability as they become attuned only to the sound of the language (or languages) they hear.  By 6 months their language perception is already becoming targeted, and by 10 months, they are almost completely attuned to their native language.

I met a paediatrician recently who told me of a study where it was arranged for a native speaker of a foreign language to come and spend several hours a week talking to and interacting with babies between about 7 and 10 months.  Those babies retained the ability to hear the different sounds of the foreign language as well as their native language, as opposed to the babies who did not get this exposure, and who became unable to distinguish between the unusual parts of the foreign language sounds.  Interestingly, another group of babies who were played videos featuring a foreign language speaker did not show any ability to perceive the foreign language.  It seems babies are hardwired to pay attention to real, three-dimensional, interactive speakers - and videoed speakers may as well be background noise.

There appears to be a critical period for learning grammar and pronunciation.  Children who are not exposed to language before the age of seven can be taught vocabulary later, but find it very difficult to pick up the grammar necessary to put words in the right order, or distinguish between singular and plural forms of words.  It is not necessary that language exposure be to spoken language.  Deaf children who are exposed to a proper, fully grammatical sign language, will learn this at much the same rate that hearing children learn to speak.  Indeed, deaf children with deaf parents who are signed to and in front of from birth, babble signs the way hearing children babble speech.  (Following from this, one bloke has proposed that babies can be taught to read at the same rate they are taught to understand verbal words, as shown here in an early baby reading program of videos, although see my note on videos below)

Babbling is a baby's natural way of learning the motor control to form speech, be that control of the voicebox, tongue and lips, or control of one's hands.  The rate of development of babbling is faster if carers pay attention to the babbling, interact, and respond.

When it comes to specific words, babies brains are biased to assume that words refer to whole objects.  So, if you show a baby a book, and call it a 'book', she is likely to assume you are referring to the whole object by the word, and not assume you mean the page, the cover, or the picture on the cover.  If you want a baby to learn the world 'apple', it seems that they will learn it faster and more instinctively if you give them an apple that they can feel, hold, bang, and mouth, than if you show them a picture of an apple in a book, or sit them in front of Sesame Street.  Learning from 2D passive media doesn't really work as effectively, certainly not until they are older.  Babies pay attention to words addressed to them.  So before you rush out an buy a 'Your Baby Can Read' video, bear in mind that teaching word recognition will work much more effectively if you are showing them the word yourself and using it to describe a real 3D object they can immediately interact with.  (I don't think it matters that the symbol or word is 2D, so long as the object you are describing is 3D, and so long as you present the word to them, be it in spoken or written form.)

Their brains are also biased to assume a word refers to a generic category, and to over-extend that category.  So a baby will assume 'dog' refers to all dogs, rather than a specific dog, and moreover may assume 'dog' refers to all animals looking vaguely like a dog, including sheep, cats, pigs etc.

The number of words they say tends to begin slowly, and then become extremely rapid around 18 months, when they start adding 1-3 words to their vocabulary every day, and around this time also start to master grammar.  They start making two-word sentences.  Over the following 6-12 months they start understanding tenses, using plurals etc.  From hearing you use the grammatical rules over and over, they start to pick up the patterns and generalise them into rules that they can apply to new words.  You can tell a three or four year old child "I have one bik.  If someone give me another bik I will have two..." and they will obligingly supply, "Biks!"  Children learn grammatical rules long before they learn the exceptions to those rules.

Babies learn language at different rates depending on:

  • genetics - apparently up to 50% of the difference (based on twin studies) can be put down to genetics;
  • gender - on average, girls learn language faster than boys for the first few years of life;
  • baby's environment - the more verbal stimulation and interaction with real people, the faster they learn - allow the baby to have 'conversations' with you where they 'talk' and you talk back;
  • more yesses, less no's - studies have indicated that talking to children about what they can and are doing, rather than what they cannot and are not doing, improve language acquisition (which makes sense, given that what you are not doing is an abstract concept that is difficult to understand, and because too much naysaying can discourage a child from the experimentation that is necessary to develop language skills);
  • whether the words are connected to immediate objects and things - babies are focused on what's in front of them, not what they were doing five minutes ago or what you will be having for dinner tonight, so unless you talk about what they can do and see right now, it's just confusing;
  • whether they are exposed to properly pronounced language (a sing-song voice is fine), or cutesy baby language;
  • the amount of repetition - ideally, start with simple nouns and verbs ('that's a tree, tree, tree' or 'you're standing up, standing up, standing up, you're standing up') then slowly expand by adding adjectives ('that's a tree, a green tree, a big green tree, tree') or adverbs ('we're talking, we're talking quietly, we're talking very very quietly') etc.;
  • whether language is fun - the more engaging language play is, the more attention a baby will pay to it;
  • whether you over-correct - babies need to hear the correct pronunciation, but they need encouragement more, it helps to respond to their efforts by showing you understand, rather than insisting they perfect their pronunciation - keep modelling correct pronunciation and they will self-correct most mistakes (eg. give your baby a banana when they say 'nana', but don't start calling it 'nana' yourself or they will come to think that is the word, just say 'here's the banana' as though that was what they said);
  • once your baby is past the eating books stage, try to read to him often - asking questions and pausing to let the child interact is better than requiring the child to be silent so you can read the book 'properly'.
Basically, it comes down to talking to your child about things that will be meaningful to them, simply then with growing complexity, and responding positively to their attempts to communicate.  However, if you run out of inspiration, here is a website with a huge range of ideas for language games and activities.

Final note: Recently a number of people have asked me whether I am teaching Bethany sign language because there was a program on TV recently about babies who sign early.  I looked into this a lot before Bethany was born, and after a while came to a couple of conclusions:
  • there is no independent research that shows babies who learn sign, sign earlier than speaking babies speak - the only people who suggest it are those selling baby sign-language packs;
  • judging by the testimonials, babies taught sign do not necessarily sign earlier, but the people marketing baby sign language pick the earliest signers and use these in their anecdotes;
  • babies who sign before they speak may do so because they have been encouraged to sign - otherwise they may well just have made a poor attempt to speak the word instead;
  • deaf associations object to teaching baby sign language - on account of it encouraging a perception that sign language is not a properly language but something babies do, and because baby sign languages are made up languages when babies could be taught their native sign language - like AUSLAN.  For a baby signing program that uses AUSLAN, see this website.  
I have noticed that Bethany has communicated what she wants and does not want very clearly by pulling things to her or pushing them away (notably food and drink) since about 5 months.  But she has not shown the slightest inclination to use hand signals to communicate - and despite all my efforts will not even raise her hand to 'wave bye-bye', although we have done it on every occasion possible for months.  I daresay that most babies will find a way to communicate their basic needs to you with or without teaching them sign language, provided you keep being responsive and trying to figure out their cues.


  1. I agree - we started baby signing with Eamonn as my hubby was used to using it (his 16-year-younger sister has Downs and they used it with her). I found it strange and awkward to do, and we were both inconsistent I think. We had chosen words like "milk" as well as mummy and daddy. But then E started communicating - he has a specific sound he makes when I'm not feeding him fast enough, he turns away and closes his mouth when he's full, he reaches for his sippy cup rather than his food if he's hungry. I've started trying again, but with one word only this time - more. I want him to be able to say "no mummy, don't take my food away, I'm still eating it, I'm just being a bit slow!".

    Of course, at 8 months, most of the actual sounds we get are babble, and i really don't hold a lot of hope for real words any time soon.

  2. my niece was taught a few signs and uses them in conjunction with the spoken language. It actually makes it much easier to communicate with her - she only does a few main ones such as eat,milk, please etc - you just need to be shown by her parents what each sign is. Its not stopping her from actually speaking in any way but while she is learning to use her words and some are a little hard to understand the signing really helps and she doesn't become too frustrated that she is not getting her point across.

  3. That is so exciting Bethany has said Da relating to her Dad! Abi has been babbling Dahdahdah for the last week or so now and of course Ash is claiming it.

    Your posts are so thoroughly put together and thought out, I'm impressed. I've been struggling to put essays together lately and couldn't fathom doing what you are now, keep up the fab work :-)

  4. Just curious...aside from all the other issues associated with TV, would seeing something on TV count as 3D?

  5. A person on TV does not seem to be processed the same way as a real person speaking to the baby. Babies learn from real people but not from TV. How much of this is due to TV being 2D and how much is due to the interactive nature of a real person is unclear, but studies have been pretty clear that sticking your baby in front of an educational video does not teach them anything. This changes when the child gets to round 2 or 3. It's pretty well documented that preschool age children can and do learn from shows like Sesame Street.

  6. Have you seen this? It is quite interesting.

  7. Wow, Karissa! What a great video. They're having a TEDX in Darwin this year in August.