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How Babies Learn to Talk

When my daughter was born, I was convinced she was a genius. Even as a tiny infant, she seemed to really listen to what I was saying, and by a year she was speaking understandable words.

Well, according to experts, I was right. But don't expect to read about my Elizabeth skipping from fifth grade to Harvard Medical School. All babies, including yours, are born with that same astonishing capability to learn complex languages quickly. And now new research shows that this process begins earlier than experts thought. "Language learning begins in the womb," says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., a noted infant language researcher and coauthor of How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life. "A baby is eavesdropping on each conversation her mother has once hearing is in place at seven months."

That's just the beginning. There have been several amazing recent discoveries. For one, newborns already comprehend speech patterns. At 4 ½ months, infants recognize the sound patterns of their own name and can distinguish it from other names with the same number of syllables and the same inflection. At 6 months, babies not only know the words "Mommy" and "Daddy" but can also relate them to their own parents. And 18-month-olds understand the basics of syntax, the structure of language.

This brings up an interesting question: How do experts know what babies too small to speak, point, or push a button are thinking? Researchers often rely on the infant sucking reflex for clues to language understanding. For instance, they'll play a recording of a woman reading a poem for an infant subject, who will stop sucking a nipple when he hears the strange voice. Then they'll play a recording of the baby's mother reading the same poem, and the baby's sucking will rapidly increase.

In a study published in September by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers measured blood flow to the brain in sleeping infants as they were played recordings of women reading -- first forward, then backward. Blood flow to the left hemisphere of the brain, which processes speech in adults, increased during the "forward" readings but not when the tapes were played backward or during silent periods, leading researchers to conclude that we are born "wired" to learn language.

And, in perhaps the most intriguing discovery of all, researchers have found that 8-month-olds use "statistics" to recognize words -- learning that "pretty baby" is two words, and not "pret," "tyba," and "by." To prove this, researchers invented languages that have similar statistics to English -- like the fact that with the word "pretty," "pre" is followed by "ty" 80 percent of the time, while "ty" is rarely followed by "ba." When the researchers flashed a light while playing an invented word or a nonword, the invented words kept the baby's attention and the nonwords didn't. "It takes them about two minutes to learn this stuff," says Jenny Saffran, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a researcher on the project. "They just seem to have a drive to learn."