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Babies Use Flexible Set of Skills to Learn Language

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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."

Other research has shown that babies may learn words by acting as "little statisticians," says Jenny Saffran of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. That means that they automatically keep track of how often a pair of sounds occur together in a sentence.

For example, a mother might coo the words "pretty baby" to her infant. By hearing these and other words repeatedly, the baby learns "pretty" is one word and "baby" is another word. Specifically, the babies learn that the sounds represented by "pr" and "t" often occur together in English, while the "t" sound is not often followed by the "b" sound.

"Eight-month-old babies can do this," Saffran says.

They also have another skill that could help them learn language -- a skill that's lost in adults. In new work published last month in the journal Developmental Psychology, Saffran showed that most babies have perfect pitch, while adults don't.

That means that babies can tell the pitch of a tone without hearing any other sound. With the exception of a few musicians, most adults have lost that ability, instead relying on the relative pitch of two sounds that occur together.

Perfect pitch allows babies to extract meaning from the pitch of different sounds they hear. Such skills are particularly important for babies who learn tonal languages as their first language.

In tonal languages, which constitute one-third of the world's languages, including Cantonese, Thai, and Vietnamese, a word has a different meaning depending on the pitch with which it is spoken, Saffran says.

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