Photo: Courtesy of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington
Photo: Courtesy of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington

Babies who babble are actually rehearsing, according to a new study. As early as seven months, those vocalizing babies are practicing the movements they will need to start forming words, Patricia Kuhl explained recently in an interview on NPR.

Kuhl is the co-direcor of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

To do this research, Kuhl and her research team used a magnetoencephalography, a brain scanner also called MEG. Babies sat in the brain scanner, which “resembles an egg-shaped vintage hair dryer and is completely safe for infants,” according to a University of Washington news release, which adds, “The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences was the first in the world to use such a tool to study babies while they engaged in a task.”

Researchers worked with 57 babies, ages 7- and 11- or 12-month-old.

Inside Babies’ Brains

The research results? “…for the first time we can see inside the baby brain as the baby’s doing something interesting – like listening to language,” Kuhl told NPR’s Robert Siegel.

“As the brain listens to sound, the baby’s auditory areas aren’t the only areas lighting up. It’s also the areas that they use to talk — their motor-planning areas. It’s as though the baby’s rehearsing their next moves. They’re trying to join the community of people who use their mouths in these funny ways to create sounds,” Kuhl said.

“And so here we see the babies at 7-months where on the outside you don’t see anything — they’re wide-eyed and they’re looking at you and they love to listen to you. But what’s going on in their little brains is the attempt to do it too; they want to be one of us. And that means they have to rehearse the mechanics of this pretty difficult signal to produce.”

What the Research Means for Parents

As the University of Washington news release explains: “The results emphasize the importance of talking to kids during social interactions even if they aren’t talking back yet.”

Kuhl adds: “Hearing us talk exercises the action areas of infants’ brains, going beyond what we thought happens when we talk to them. Infants’ brains are preparing them to act on the world by practicing how to speak before they actually say a word.” These are the early, critical steps in the language-learning journey of a developing reader.

In addition, the news release explains, “The study has social implications, suggesting that the slow and exaggerated parentese speech – ‘Hiiiii! How are youuuuu?’ – may actually prompt infants to try to synthesize utterances themselves and imitate what they heard, uttering something like ‘Ahhh bah bah baaah.’”

Kuhl says: “Parentese is very exaggerated, and when infants hear it, their brains may find it easier to model the motor movements necessary to speak.”

You can read the study, which was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Or, better yet, you can find a baby and have a happy, brain stimulating conversation.