Babies’ brains are naturally wired to learn language. In fact, they are able to process every sound of every language in the world before approximately nine months of age, when they begin to prune out sounds from languages they do not hear every day and focus on their own native tongue. These sound units, called phonemes, are the foundation upon which language is built.
It starts in utero
At as early as sixteen to eighteen weeks’ gestation, the mechanisms of the inner ear begin to form. Unborn babies hear their mother’s heartbeat, the movement of the amniotic fluid, and their mother’s voice amplified through the body. They show recognition of their mother’s voice as soon as they are born.
The good news: babies begin processing phonemes before they are even born, too. We can use this early sense of hearing and innate ability to process varying phonemes to prime babies’ brains for a world of words that will help them become smarter.
Citizens of the world
Through a technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG) imaging, researchers can identify which areas of a baby’s brain are stimulated by sound and language when a caregiver speaks to them. Researcher and author Patricia Kuhl pioneered the use of MEG to study how babies learn. Kuhl calls all babies “citizens of the world” because of their incredible ability to process every sound from every language.
In a fascinating study, Kuhl and her team provided Mandarin lessons to 16 American babies at nine months of age. The Mandarin teacher spent 12 sessions singing songs, performing puppet shows, and talking to the babies in Mandarin. At the conclusion of the Mandarin lessons, results showed that the American babies performed at a comparable level to Taiwanese babies who had been immersed in the Mandarin language their entire lives. This demonstrates that short-term exposure of a new language produces significant new learning at nine months of age.
The importance of face-to-face interaction
In a second part of Kuhl’s study, the same Mandarin language lessons were presented to a group of nine-month-olds via a television screen. At the conclusion of this study, the babies had no new learning of Mandarin sounds. These results suggest that a live person has to present the language in order for learning to occur. The social component is critical in new language acquisition; the subtleties of language and communication have to occur through human interaction.
A study from Harvard and MIT further illustrates this point. It was found that interactive dialogue between child and caregiver results in more new learning than just saying words to the child or having the child listen to electronic noise. Researchers believe parents can make a tremendous impact on children’s language and brain development simply by engaging them in conversation.
Early language exposure boosts academics later on
Additional studies reveal that early language interactions are the strongest predictor of future academic skills and that the early integration of a second language improves children’s higher-level cognitive and academic skills later on. Some studies show that bilingual children typically earn higher scores in mental flexibility, non-verbal problem solving, and grammar.
What you can do
If a second language is spoken in your home, share it with your child before they are even born. Begin talking to your baby in both English and your second language while the baby is still in utero. For example, you could speak a sentence in one language and then the other.
After the child has been born but before they can even talk, make it a habit to read, sing, and speak to them all day long in both languages. As the child matures, encourage speech in both languages. For example, you could ask them to name colors, shapes, letters, and numbers first in English and then in the second language.
It may seem like extra work for you and a lot to teach your child, but the payoff is tremendous. By exposing your baby to a wealth of language early on, your child will have an advanced skill set that opens up a world of possibilities.