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Babies Use Flexible Set of Skills to Learn Language

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 19, 2001 (San Francisco) -- Learning our first language is the toughest homework assignment we'll ever have, and we do it before we can walk or crawl. So how do we do it? New studies show that babies grasp language by using a variety of skills that are hardwired into their brains before birth.

The skills include the ability to detect patterns of sounds and tones, the ability to detect and remember isolated words, and the ability to remember the frequency that words occur together in spoken sentences.

"We think all these things are working at the same time," says researcher Michael Brent, PhD, an associate professor of computer science at Washington University in St. Louis.

The results were presented here Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Researchers have debated for years whether most of our ability to pick up language is hardwired, or whether our brains are sculpted mostly by our experiences in life, Brent says. They've also debated which specific cues the babies pick up on as they learn.

As anyone who has listened to a conversation in a foreign language knows, it's hard to tell where one word ends and another begins. But amazingly, babies learn how to do that within a year or two.

In the 1980s, many researchers thought that babies learned words in isolation, particularly when the mother spoke to their babies in the lilting and simplified tones that researchers call "motherese." For example, if a mother held up a red ball and said "red," the child would learn the word "red," Brent says.

In the 1990s, many researchers concluded that not all mothers speak this way to their babies. Instead, they hypothesized that babies focus more on the frequency of particular words in sentences they hear, he explains.

Now, Brent and his colleagues have shown that babies do in fact learn from isolated words. The researchers analyzed hours of recorded speech from eight mothers to their babies. They put a tape recorder in a fanny pack that the women wore in around their home, then they listened to the tape and analyzed speech patterns on a computer.

The studies started when the babies were 9 months old and stopped when the babies were 15 months old.

It turned out that 9% of the time mothers spoke to their babies, they uttered isolated words. What's more, the more frequently the mother spoke a particular word, the more likely a baby was to know that word at the end of the study.

"This does not mean that parents should use monosyllabic speech," Brent emphasizes. "Don't worry about how you speak to your baby: Without trying, you'll naturally speak to them in the way they learn."

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