Baby Babbling Part of Language Learning

What's Your Baby Trying to Tell You?

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 30, 2002 -- Those goo-goo's and ga-ga's coming out of your baby's mouth may actually mean something. A new study shows baby babbling isn't just noise, but a key step in the process of learning real words and language expression.

Researchers say their study proves that babbling is very different than other baby sounds or facial expressions and is linked to the area in the brain that controls language development.

Their findings are published in the Aug. 30 issue of Science.

By studying videotapes of 10 babies aged 5-12 months, the researchers found that babies open their mouths more on the right side when babbling, which indicates that the left, language-related, area of the brain is activated. The left side of the brain also controls the right side of the face.

This principle of "right mouth asymmetry" also applies to adults, who also open their mouths a tad wider on the right side when speaking. Human eyesight makes the disparity virtually undetectable.

"This suggests that language functions specialize in the brain at a very early age," says researcher Laura Ann Petitto, EdD, professor in Dartmouth's department of psychological and brain sciences, and department of education, in a news release.

In order to take into account any language-specific bias, five of the babies in the study were learning French and five were learning English, but the results were similar in both groups.

Researchers also studied the babies' mouth movements while making other non-babbling sounds such as "ahh," but found no differences in mouth opening between the right and left sides.

"We found that all the babies, both English and French, had right mouth asymmetry when babbling, equal mouth opening for non-babbling, and left mouth asymmetry for smiles," says Petitto.

The fact that the babies' mouths opened wider on the left when smiling also indicates that the movement is linked to the emotional center of the brain located on the right side. Researchers say that provides further evidence that areas of babies' brains begin to specialize at a very early age.

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