Brain activity shows babies rehearsing speech months before first words

Brain activity in babies as young as seven months show that they are preparing to begin to speak.

Researchers from the University of Washington found that areas of the brain responsible for planning the motor movements associated with speech were activated when 7- and 11-month old babies heard speech sounds.

“Most babies babble by 7 months, but don’t utter their first words until after their first birthdays,” said lead author Patricia Kuhl, who is the co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “Finding activation in motor areas of the brain when infants are simply listening is significant, because it means the baby brain is engaged in trying to talk back right from the start and suggests that 7-month-olds’ brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words.”

The researchers also found that the 7-month old babies responded equally both to their native language, English, and to Spanish. However, by 11 months the babies showed increased activity in this region of the brain for the language with which they were less familiar. The researchers speculated that this was because the unfamiliar language required more effort for the baby to predict the required motor movements. This implies that the babies had become familiar with the language spoken around them, preparing the motor circuits of the brain for them to eventually speak themselves.

One implication of this study is to highlight the importance of parents talking to their babies, even before the babies show an obvious response. Hearing their parents talk helps babies to prepare the brain circuits required for their own speech.

“Hearing us talk exercises the action areas of infants’ brains, going beyond what we thought happens when we talk to them,” Kuhl said. “Infants’ brains are preparing them to act on the world by practicing how to speak before they actually say a word.”

See the press release.

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