The Speech of Other Babies Helps Infants to Learn


In a paper appearing in the journal Developmental Science, Researchers in Canada found that an attraction to infant speech sounds may help kick-start and support the crucial processes involved in learning how to talk. The discovery also offers new ways to help infants with problems such as hearing impairment that hinder the development of their language skills.

Professor Linda Polka from McGill University, in Montreal, Canada suggested, “Perhaps, when we use a high, infant-like voice pitch to speak to our babies, we are actually preparing them to perceive their own voice.”

The researchers did a series of experiments where they played a repeating vowel sound that mimicked either those made by an adult woman or those made by a baby.

They discovered that the babies had a clear preference for the sounds that mimicked the infant. On average, the infants listened to the infant vowels 40 percent longer than the adult woman vowels.

This is not a preference for a familiar sound because the babies, who took part in the experiment were not yet babbling themselves.  “So the infant-like vowel sounds that they heard were not yet part of their everyday listening experience,” Polka noted.

Some babies showed their interest in other ways. They met the adult vowel sounds with fairly neutral, passive faces. But when they heard infant-like sounds, they would smile or move their mouths as they listened, or both.

“They seemed to recognize that this was a sound that they could try to make themselves, even though they probably had never heard anything like it before,” the authors noted.

This study brings researchers closer to an understanding of the complex interplay between speech perception and speech production in young infants.