Exaggerating speech helps babies learn language

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Taking to babies in an exaggerated style of speech helps them figure out how to produce words, finds study.

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Researchers measured babies' brain responses to language. Photo courtesy of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, University of Washington

According to researchers at the University of Washington, exposure to exaggerated ‘parentese’ speech, such as ‘Hiiiiii’, ‘How are youuuuuu?’, as early as seven-months-old stimulates areas of a baby’s brain that co-ordinates and plans motor movements for speech.

Their findings are based on the recorded brain responses of 57 babies aged seven, 11 and 12-months-old, as they each listened to a series of native (English) and foreign language (Spanish) syllables such as ‘ta’ and ‘da’.

Researchers observed the babies’ brain activity specifically in the regions responsible for planning the motor movements required for producing speech.

They found brain activity occurred for the native language and non-native language sounds in all seven-month-olds, showing that even at this early age children respond to all speech, whether or not they have heard it before.

However, in the older babies, brain activation was slightly different.  By 11 to- 12-months-old, this brain region only reacted when the children heard a word in their parents’ language.

The researchers say that the study has social implications as it suggests that exaggerated ‘parentese’ speech may actually prompt babies to try to ‘synthesize’ utterances themselves and imitate what they heard.

It also emphasises the importance of talking to babies during social interactions even if they are not talking back yet.

Lead author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, said, ‘Finding activation in motor areas of the brain when babies are simply listening is significant because it means the brain is engaged in trying to talk back right from the start. It suggests that seven-month-olds’ brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words.’

She added, ‘Parentese is very exaggerated, and when babies hear it, their brains may find it easier to model the motor movements necessary to speak.’