Babies Rapidly Learn Language Sounds, Even Just Hours After Being Born

Babies are frequently viewed as blank canvases with little learning potential in their first few weeks of life. However, newborns start understanding language and speech quite early. They develop the ability to distinguish voices and some speech sounds even while still in the womb. They already choose speech sounds over other non-language sounds from birth.

However, it's still not quite clear how the newborn brain picks up on sophisticated language sounds. Our most recent research, which was published in Nature Human Behaviour, revealed specifics of this astoundingly quick learning process, which begins within hours after birth.

We worked with a Chinese neonatal research team that equipped infants' heads with a tiny cap coated in advanced light-emitting components intended to detect minute variations in the oxygen levels in their brains. We could track which parts of the brain were active over time using detectors in the cap.

The surgery, which is completely painless and safe, was done three hours after the infants were delivered. It merely needed the infant to wear a little elastic hat and to have tiny infrared LEDs shine through the skull (basically heat radiation). This is consistent with the widespread custom in many cultures of swaddling infants in a snug blanket to calm them and ease their transition from the safety of the womb to the untamed world of independent physical life.

All newborns were exposed to pairings of sounds that most academics believe they should be able to differentiate within three hours of birth. Vowels (like "o") and the same vowels played backwards were included.

In contrast to how reversed speech often differs from forward speech, single vowels make the distinction less obvious. In fact, our research revealed that only 70% of the time could adult listeners discriminate between the two occurrences.

We were startled to see that babies were unable to distinguish between forward and backward vowels within three hours of birth since there was no difference in the brain signals we gathered in either case. In retrospect, we should not have been as shocked given how little the distinction was.

We were shocked to learn that after five hours of exposure to these sounds, babies began to distinguish between these forward and backward vowels. They started responding to forward vowels more quickly than backward vowels. And after a further two hours, most of which they spent asleep, their brains responded to forward vowels faster and more powerfully than those of newborns who had been educated with other vowels or babies who stayed silent.

This indicates that the baby's brain quickly picks up on the minor differences between speech sounds that are slightly artificial and those that are naturally occurring on the first day of life.

Furthermore, we were able to see that the processing of vowel sounds, particularly in the left hemisphere, was mediated by the superior temporal lobe, an area of the brain linked with auditory processing, and the frontal cortex. That is comparable to the structure supporting adult language understanding and output.

What's more remarkable is that we were able to identify cross-talk (communication between various brain regions) between these regions in both the group of newborn participants who had heard speech sounds, but not in those who had not received any training. In other words, the taught babies' neurons were "talking" to one another in the brain in a way that was not evident in the newborns who stayed silent over the same period.

Talking to newborns as soon as they leave the womb is probably to their immediate advantage. It is obvious that "nurture," or the environment affecting a person's mentality, begins from day one.

Babies don't come with a manual.

These results can also be seen in light of embodiment theory, a popular idea in contemporary neuroscience. Embodiment is the idea that our thoughts and mental processes are not pre-programmed or mysteriously operate from some inherited genetic code but rather are built upon direct experience of the world around us, through the sensory channels such as hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching, which begin to function from birth.

Even though our brain has a predisposition to learn based on its organization and function defined by the genetic code inherited from our parents, it is also able to feel the environment as soon as it is born, and this immediately helps our internal representations of the world around us.

As soon as your kid is in your arms, I would advise you to talk to them as well as share with them various sensory experiences of the world, whether it be exposing them to music, letting them smell flowers, or exposing them to sights or perspectives they have never seen before. You can provide the newborn brain more opportunities to grow and develop, as well as maybe better future creative talents, by promoting a wider variety of experiences. The Discussion

Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University.