Baby talk

A baby’s first words are a critical milestone in its development. From that moment on, their language skills are of paramount importance, and for lots of reasons.

According to scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, while parents encourage their child to talk in all sorts of ways, it is sleep that helps the process of associating meanings to words that really matters. They found that babies as young as six to eight months old were capable of making these associations rather than just perceiving words as random noise, and that this ability was a direct result of the babies having a midday nap.

Very young children hold real word meanings in their long-term memory much earlier than had been previously thought and although the brain structures relevant for this type of memory are not fully developed, they are already coming into use.

The scientists introduced six to eight-month-old infants to ‘fantasy objects’ that they gave made-up names such as ‘Bofel’ or ‘Zuser.’ This made sure that the babies couldn’t access any existing knowledge. Objects that were the same type, but differed only in form or colour, were called the same names.

From the infants reaction it was clear that they could not connect new objects of the same type with the corresponding name.

Because every new object or word pair was unknown and unique, the babies were unable to form a general relation between them. However, their performance improved after a midday nap. In babies who fell asleep after the learning activity, the brain could differentiate between the right and wrong term for a new object. The team say this shows they had consolidated their knowledge while they were asleep. Babies that stayed awake could not manage to do the same.

The duration of sleep was also important – a half-hour nap was not enough to see results, but those who slept for 50 minutes or more did show improved performance.

In the study, the babies received a lot of information they would normally pick up over a longer time period. But only during sleep, when the child’s brain is disconnected from the outer world, can they filter and save essential information about the relationship between words and objects. Only during the interaction between awake exploration and ordering processes while sleeping, can early cognitive and linguistic capabilities develop properly.

So the moral of this story is that bright children get regular sleep periods.

Playing ‘I spy’ with your baby will also do wonders for its cognitive development. Children who are encouraged to interact with stimulating, brightly coloured environments develop far stronger brains than their peers, even before they’ve learned to speak.

Playing the game (and obviously helping them with the answers) when you go to the supermarket is a perfect opportunity because it’s brightly lit with lots of things to look at and describe. For example, tell them ‘broccoli is green, radishes are red, and tangerines are orange’ is a really good start. This will help your child to connect the dots between language and environment and will lay the groundwork for a smooth running neural network. It will also maximize their intelligence later in life.

Playing music – especially classical music – and introducing them to new people also provides a major boost to a baby’s cognitive function.

The study was conducted by neuroscience researchers investigating how the brain’s circuit network develops over time at the Children’s National Health System in Washington D.C.

Scores of studies have shown babies from lower-income families or impoverished backgrounds tend to have poorer cognitive development. While this is due to many factors – from higher rates of illness to poorer education – the researchers have identified simple techniques that all families can use to improve their child’s brain function, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Brain development starts in the womb. Between 23 weeks and 37 weeks, the foetus starts to develop the initial structure of white matter, a crucial part of the brain that controls learning. Environmental experiences begin to have a meaningful role once the baby is born.

Young children need an environment where there is novelty, new experiences and continuous active learning. An interesting environment provides the opportunity to move and participate in physical exercise. Children who are exposed to new and different objects with an opportunity for physical activity and interaction with playmates do better. This type of setting challenges the child to continuously adapt to his or her surroundings in a social, physical and experiential manner.

Exposing new-borns to classical music helps with cognition, hearing and motor skills.

It taps multiple areas of the brain to work together collaboratively. Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) reveals that professional musicians who began playing as children have improved intelligence later in life.

And as they grow…

A new study at Princeton University has confirmed that bilingual babies – that is, babies that grow up learning two different languages, for example when the parents speak different languages – can accurately process two languages from just 20 months of age. Researchers found that infants growing up with two languages have the learning ability to make sense of both of them just by listening. Scientists think that they hear the switch between languages and speech does not just blend into meaningless sound.

By 20 months, bilingual babies already know something about the differences between words in their two languages. They understand the difference between ‘dog’ (English) and ‘chien’ (French) and also that they are just two versions of the same thing. They implicitly know that these words belong to different languages.

Previous research has found that babies who were exposed to two languages have more highly developed intelligence before they’ve even uttered a word. The research shows that teachers and carers should not be concerned that children growing up in bilingual families and learning to speak two languages will confuse those languages. They will however, end up smarter.

The study also confirms that bilingual babies monitor and control their languages. It also provides an explanation of why bilingual people show cognitive advantages throughout their lifetimes. The everyday listening experience in infancy – the back-and-forth processing of two languages – is likely to give rise to the cognitive advantages that have already been documented in both bilingual children and adults.

This is one of a number of studies that have shown being bilingual boosts intelligence.

Scientists have already found that just growing up in a home or environment where children listen to more than one language being spoken can improve a child’s problem solving skills and memory.

For instance, researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle, found that this development starts by the time babies are 11 months old and ready to say their first words. Researchers there conducted an experiment that found the area of the brain responsible for executive function is more developed among babies in a bilingual home than those brought up with just one language.

Executive function is the brain’s control room, from where the rest of the brain is organised, leading to better learning capabilities, problem solving, memory and other skills.

During the tests, babies listened to words spoken in both Spanish and English – the two most common languages in America. In Britain, second or third generation immigrants may learn English alongside Asian languages and increasingly, East European languages. Even before they start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting practice at tasks related to executive function. This suggests that bilingualism shapes not only language development, but also cognitive development generally.

Babies raised listening to two languages seem to stay open to the sounds of novel languages longer than their monolingual peers, which is a good and highly adaptive thing for brains to do.

The university’s Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) study was published in the journal Developmental Science.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.