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Talking to babies in 'parentese' boosts their language development

Language development in babies is profoundly influenced by everyday social interactions, a scene both universal and heart-warming.

Parents often engage with their babies by speaking in a high-pitched voice known as “parentese.” They respond to the baby’s babbling and gestures with eye contact and smiles. Consequently, these connections do more than warm the heart.

Recent research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) reveals the significant role these interactions play in the foundational stages of an infant’s language growth.

Social interaction and infant brains

The experts used magnetoencephalography (MEG), an innovative, noninvasive brain-imaging technology, to observe the brain activities of infants during social interactions.

The researchers compared these interactions to nonsocial scenarios in which the adult diverted their attention away from the child.

Remarkably, social engagement with a 5-month-old, including talking and playing, markedly increased brain activity in regions linked to attention.

As a result, the experts identified this heightened activity as a reliable predictor of accelerated language development in the child as they aged.

Language development and brain activity in babies

Lead author Alexis Bosseler, a research scientist at I-LABS, highlighted the novelty of this approach, stating: “This is the first study to directly compare infant brain responses to adult-infant social interaction versus nonsocial interaction, and then follow up with the children until they reached the age of 2.5 to see how the early brain activation relates to the child’s future language abilities.”

Through the MEG technology, researchers could observe the dynamic neural responses of infants in real-time. As adults engaged with them, this allowed the capturing of the essence of natural interaction.

Furthermore, follow-up studies revealed a strong correlation between the neural activity prompted by these social interactions and significant milestones in language development. These milestones were observed at various stages, including, 21, 24, 27, and 30 months.

Babies brain reactions to language

Study co-author Andrew Meltzoff, I-LABS co-director, emphasized the broader implications of the findings. He suggested that these early brain reactions to language have a profound effect on later developmental stages.

Additionally, he remarked on the potential for new avenues of research to explore the critical period of language acquisition that begins around the age of six months.

Language learning via parentese

The choice of studying five-month-old infants was also deemed strategic. It targeted the phase right before the onset of the sensitive period for speech-language learning.

Patricia Kuhl, the study’s senior author and co-director of I-LABS, elaborated on the intuitive nature of using parentese, underscoring language’s role in establishing a communicative connection from infancy.

Social interaction spurs language learning

Kuhl also addressed the study’s significance of language development in babies for parents and educators.

“We knew from previous work that social interaction is essential at 9-months of age for foreign-language learning, but the current study shows that social interaction plays a role much earlier,” said Kuhl.

She explained how the natural parental behavior, termed “the social ensemble,” significantly influences the infant’s brain. This includes the use of parentese accompanied by gestures of affection and responsive interaction.

Consequently, this influence not only enhances attention but also motivates learning during a crucial developmental phase.

Fostering future communication

The findings of this study underscore the power of social interaction in the early stages of a child’s life, offering valuable insights for parents and educators about the importance of engaging with infants in a meaningful way.

The research reaffirms the notion that the foundations of language and learning are laid through the simple, yet profound, act of social connection.

Using parentese for language development of babies

Parentese is easy and natural. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Use a higher pitch: Speak in a slightly higher, sing-song voice. This grabs babies’ attention.
  2. Slow down: Talk slowly and clearly. It helps babies grasp the sounds and patterns of speech.
  3. Exaggerate sounds: Stretch out the vowels in words. It makes it easier for babies to understand and later mimic the sounds.
  4. Be expressive: Use lots of facial expressions and gestures. This adds context to your words, making them more meaningful.
  5. Keep it simple: Use simple words and short sentences. It helps babies follow along and learn basic vocabulary.
  6. Respond: When babies babble or make noises, respond as if they’re speaking. This encourages them to keep trying to communicate.
  7. Repeat words: Repeating words or phrases helps reinforce their meaning and sound, aiding language development.
  8. Focus on the here and now: Talk about objects and actions happening around you. Pointing and naming objects helps link words to their meanings.

Remember, the goal of parentese isn’t just to entertain but to engage with your baby, fostering their language and social development.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.


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