Everybody loves a cute baby, but there’s more to that innocent vacuous gaze than you might think – behind those doe eyes is a whirlwind of cognitive activity that puts even the mightiest supercomputers to shame.
Consider how an infant learns language – this amazing feat is one of the most defining aspects of human existence, and the process (and speed) through which a baby learns the nuances of speech, grammar and syntax from mere observation and imitation is truly astonishing. But what’s even more remarkable is the ease of which very small children can become bilingual.
Now scientists have a better understanding of how this works. AP reports that researchers have found that babies are born with an innate ability to distinguish between unique sets of sounds (i.e. “l” as in “lake” vs “r” as in “rake”), but this ability starts weakening “even before they start talking, by the first birthday.” They developed this conclusion through experiments tracking the eye gaze of babies – scientists would make a “fun toy appear on one side or the other” whenever a particular sound was made, and the babies quickly learned “to look on that side whenever he or she [heard]a brand-new but similar sound. Noninvasive brain scans document[ed]how the brain processes and imprints language.”
Italian researchers have also discovered that bilingual babies seem to have more “flexible” brains after testing “44 12-month-olds to see how they recognized three-syllable patterns — nonsense words, just to test sound learning. Sure enough, gaze-tracking showed the bilingual babies learned two kinds of patterns at the same time — like lo-ba-lo or lo-lo-ba — while the one-language babies learned only one.”
The implications of this research go beyond babies – scientists hope that these new discoveries will also help adults learn foreign languages more easily. In short, it seems that direct, personal interaction (as opposed to merely plopping your kid, or yourself, in front of a TV/DVD) and the slow, exaggerated pronunciation of “motherese” are all crucial components to learning a second language.
We’ve seen proof positive of this ourselves as our own daughter picks up words and phrases (predominately in Chinese, but more and more now in bits and pieces of English) at a relatively early stage (18 months). It seems that her constant interaction with the adults in her life (she’s literally surrounded by grownups blabbing at her all day) has allowed Marianne to develop quite the little blabbermouth herself, and we’re amazed at the increasing number of phrases and even full sentences that she can now say.
So keep talking to your tots in whatever languages you can – you may not realize what a lasting impression you’re making.