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Reading nursery rhymes to babies helps them quickly learn language

An important new study emphasizes the significance of rhythmic speech, like nursery rhymes, in early language development in infants.

This research, conducted by experts from the University of Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin, challenges traditional views on language acquisition. It suggests that babies learn languages primarily from rhythmic rather than phonetic information in their initial months.

Nursery rhymes and language learning

Phonetic information, the smallest sound elements represented by the alphabet, has long been considered the foundation of language learning. It was believed that infants learn these elements and combine them to form words.

However, this new study posits that reliance on phonetic information comes too late in the language development process to be the primary method of learning.

Rhythmic speech, used in nursery rhymes, emphasizes the boundaries of individual words. It’s proven to be an effective tool for language learning, even in the first months of life. This type of speech helps infants recognize and process language by emphasizing word boundaries through rhythm and tone.

Studying babies and nursery rhymes

The study involved recording brain activity in infants aged four, seven, and eleven months as they watched a video of a teacher singing nursery rhymes. They found that phonetic encoding in babies emerges gradually. Labial and nasal sounds are among the first to be encoded. Notably, reliable processing of individual speech sounds was not observed until around seven months of age.

“Our research shows that the individual sounds of speech are not processed reliably until around seven months, even though most infants can recognize familiar words like ‘bottle’ by this point,” said Cambridge neuroscientist, Professor Usha Goswami. “From then individual speech sounds are still added in very slowly – too slowly to form the basis of language.”

Professor Giovanni Di Liberto of Trinity College Dublin is the study’s first author. He remarked, “This is the first evidence of how brain activity relating to phonetic information changes over time in response to continuous speech.”

Previous studies had focused on responses to nonsensical syllables, making this research a significant breakthrough.

The BabyRhythm project

The study is part of the BabyRhythm project, led by Goswami. It investigates the connection between language learning, rhythmic speech, dyslexia, and developmental language disorders.

A sister study under the same project found that rhythmic speech information is processed by babies as young as two months old.

“We believe that speech rhythm information is the hidden glue underpinning the development of a well-functioning language system,” said Goswami. “Infants can use rhythmic information like a scaffold or skeleton to add phonetic information on to. For example, they might learn that the rhythm pattern of English words is typically strong-weak, as in ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’, with the stress on the first syllable. They can use this rhythm pattern to guess where one word ends and another begins when listening to natural speech.”

Goswami advises parents to engage in rhythmic speech activities with their babies, such as talking, singing, or using nursery rhymes. This interaction plays a crucial role in enhancing language outcomes in children.

Rhythm: A universal aspect of language

The team also underscores rhythm as a universal element in all languages. Goswami notes, “In all language that babies are exposed to, there is a strong beat structure with a strong syllable twice a second.”

Goswami suggests that the traditional understanding of dyslexia and developmental language disorders, often attributed to phonetic problems, may need to be reevaluated. She posits that differences in children’s language skills might originate from their ability to process rhythm.

In summary, this innovative research marks a significant shift in our understanding of early language development, highlighting the profound impact of rhythmic speech over phonetic learning in infants. It opens new avenues for exploring language acquisition and provides valuable insights for parents and educators in fostering early language skills.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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