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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."

A Parent's Role

So you've got this little linguistic miracle on your hands, listening to your every word and soaking up language like a sponge. Obviously, you're not going to test your baby's language skills with flashing lights and pacifiers, but what should you do to foster language development?

The good news is that the vast majority of parents are already doing what they need to do. Just spending time with your baby, chatting away as you go about your day, helps them grasp the pattern and meaning of language. "Don't think talking to your baby is a waste because she doesn't understand," says Golinkoff. "Narrate your daily activities."

And don't feel as if your baby's proper language development requires you to sound like the host of Masterpiece Theatre. Golinkoff's lab studies show that infants actually prefer that high-pitched, cooing baby talk to adult language. "It makes them pay attention," she says, particularly because parents usually get close to their child's face and use exaggerated facial expressions, allowing their baby to see and smell them. "That's a very appealing package."

Reading is another pleasant way to expose babies to language, and parents shouldn't think that any child is too young for storytime, says Henry Shapiro, M.D., medical director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at All Children's Hospital, in St. Petersburg, Florida, and a recent chair of the section of developmental and behavioral pediatrics for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Book language" is different from spoken language, says Dr. Shapiro, and reading prepares children for the literary language they'll encounter later in school. The bonus of storytime is that it combines language learning with bonding and fosters respect for books from the beginning.

The experts interviewed all stressed that parents don't need to invest in fancy, expensive toys or videos that claim to build language and intelligence. Instead, they should relax and enjoy their babies -- kids have been picking up language for millennia without flash cards, computers, or undue parental stress. In fact, Golinkoff has coauthored a new book on the topic, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. She claims that the box a pricey learning toy comes in can be equally effective in developing language if the parent uses it in imaginative play with the baby.

"You don't need drill and practice; you need play," adds Dr. Shapiro, who says that with toddlers, parents should take the child's lead, commenting on what he's interested in at the moment. In other words, don't try to redirect his attention from a fascinating, noisy truck and show him a pretty bird -- go with the flow or you'll lose his interest.

Try using a method known as "joint attention" -- limiting your own talking and giving him a chance to respond, even if it's not with actual words but gestures and/or babbling -- says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

Language experts warn that just plopping babies down in front of a TV is no substitute for joint attention (what the rest of us call playtime). Case in point: A new study from the University of Washington infant language lab showed that 9- and 10-month-olds were able to grasp some phonetics of Mandarin Chinese when exposed to live speakers, but not recordings.

And what about working parents, whose infants and toddlers are in daycare? They shouldn't feel they have to "do more" when they get home. "I worked when my kids were little too," says Golinkoff, whose children are grown. "Parents think they have to make up for it with intense quality time that turns into teaching. But the kids just need fun, warm, loving interaction." Dr. Shapiro stresses, however, that the quality of daycare is critical and that parents should visit the center and pay attention not only to the caregiver-to-child ratio but also to the time caregivers spend talking and reading to children.

Learning and Growing

So what should you expect to see in terms of your child's language development over the first two years? The chart below lists general milestones, but don't panic if your child doesn't follow these exactly, or think, like I did, that hitting them early means you've got a prodigy on your hands. "What is critical to know is that there is a wide range of individual difference" in language learning, says Paul. The milestones represent what the majority of babies are doing at those ages.

Briefly, babies should progress from cooing, gurgling, and crying to babbling at 4 to 6 months -- that is, making those lovely "bababa, gagaga, dadada" sounds. Since "dadadada" is one of the earliest babbles, many doting dads, including my husband, are convinced that their babies are calling them. (Feel free to hide this article from them, as there is nothing cuter than an enraptured father who's bursting with pride and babbling "dadadada" back to his child.)

But while babbling gets more wordlike and complex starting around 7 months, a baby won't typically produce her first word until she's a year old, though research shows that she recognizes and understands certain words earlier. "In every piece of language learning, babies know way more than they can say," says Saffran.

This is the difference between "receptive language," which is what babies understand, and "expressive language," which is what they can produce, says Paul. Much of the gap has to do with the fact that your baby's amazing mental capacity for language (the way words are used and combined to communicate) has outstripped her motor skills required for speech (the production of sounds). This concept has given birth to a tidal wave of books, workshops, and websites for parents who want to teach babies not yet capable of speech to communicate using sign language. For example, a 1-year-old may say only "Mama" but can respond to simple commands, such as "Give me the book." Two-year-olds can generally say two-word sentences, and 3-year-olds can say three-word sentences, after which language just explodes. (And 11-year-olds, like my daughter, can usually say, "Get out of my room, Mom!" But that's another story.)

So if the guidelines are flexible, how are parents to know whether their child is just a "late talker" or might have a hearing problem or language delay? It's an important question, because ASHA figures show that one in ten Americans has some type of speech, language, or hearing disorder and research finds that early intervention is critical for kids with hearing and language problems.

It's difficult to determine a lot about speech in the first six months, as virtually all children -- even deaf ones -- babble. A silent child who makes no pleasure sounds and doesn't seem to attend to parents' voices should set off alarms, says Paul. Children with hearing problems and other language disorders often stop babbling rather than go on to more complex sounds between 6 and 12 months, says Dr. Shapiro.

Although parents hang on the "first word" milestone, experts are more concerned about receptive language. A 1-year-old may not have uttered that long-awaited first word, but if she's communicating by pointing, lifting her arms to be picked up, responding to simple commands, and using "proto-language" (her babble sounds like nonsense to you, but clearly she means something), she's obviously learning language and is probably just a late talker.

Early Intervention

Experts are far more concerned about children who don't seem interested in communication, who don't point or imitate adult actions (such as cradling a doll), and who don't make eye contact. These behaviors could signal a developmental disorder or a language delay. Parents should also monitor whether their child is on track with other milestones, such as sitting and walking. An overall delay is more worrisome than a delay in just speech and language.

High risk children, such as those born prematurely or with a disability such as Down syndrome or those who have had meningitis, are more likely to experience hearing, speech, and language problems. As many as half of preterm babies -- those born at less than 34 weeks or less than three and a half pounds -- are at risk of developmental delays, including problems with speech, language, and hearing.

Early intervention for speech and language problems is available, free of cost, through several organizations. Concerned parents can contact these groups directly and should also visit their pediatrician or go directly to an audiologist. "One of the first things to do is to rule out hearing loss," says Paul. Although 42 states and the District of Columbia have universal hearing screenings at birth and 85 percent of newborns are screened, the tests are not foolproof and hearing loss can develop later. The good news is that infants as young as 3 months can now be fitted with hearing aids and begin language learning.

The medical community is debating the role of ear infections in language delay. Dr. Shapiro cites a recent study of 3,000 children that showed that children who had tympanostomy tubes inserted in their ears had no better language development at 4 years than other children with persistent middle-ear infections. "The link between ear infections and speech and language delay has been and continues to be controversial," says Paul. She advises parents to err on the side of caution and have children with frequent infections evaluated.

For the vast majority of kids, however, language learning is a blissfully natural process that should be enjoyed by both parent and child. "All you have to do is talk with your baby and read books with your child. You don't have to wake them up in the middle of the night to talk about death and taxes; they will learn language," reassures Golinkoff.

How true. While house hunting recently, we toured a real clinker, a 1950s rambler with what looked like filing cabinets in the kitchen and plenty of mildew everywhere. "Well, that house was...," I said, at a loss for words. "Execrable!" my 9-year-old son, James, chimed in happily. I have no idea where that came from, any more than I know why he said "duck" before "dog" or "ball." Later, we went out for Chinese food, so maybe his next words will be in Mandarin. At this point, nothing would surprise me.