Babies Find Their Voice When Given Social Push. (Babble Rousers)

By Bower, B. | Science News, June 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Babies Find Their Voice When Given Social Push. (Babble Rousers)


Bower, B., Science News


Eight-month-old infants utter more complex, speechlike sounds when their mothers encourage them with well-timed touches and smiles rather than with words offered as models to imitate, a new study finds.

This provides the first evidence that nonverbal interactions with caregivers shape babies' vocal learning, says psychologist Michael H. Goldstein of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. The power of maternal behaviors to ramp up babies' babbling corresponds to the way certain bird species learn to sing, propose Goldstein and his coworkers Andrew P. King and Meredith J. West, both of Indiana University in Bloomington.

"This is a basic type of social learning," Goldstein asserts. "At 8 months of age, kids may already make complex speech sounds occasionally, but they produce them regularly in response to [certain encouraging] interactions with a caregiver."

The new findings, slated to appear in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, support the view that learning language doesn't hinge solely on the ability to imitate spoken sounds.

Goldstein's group studied 30 infants averaging 8 months of age and their mothers. Each mother-child pair first played in a room stocked with toys for 10 minutes. Then half the mothers were told to respond immediately during the next 10 minutes to a baby's vocalizations by smiling, moving closer to the child, and gently touching him or her--but not by talking. The rest of the mothers were instructed through headphones to react in the same ways, but usually not right after a baby made sounds.

In those cases in which mothers timed their smiles and touches with their babies' vocalizations, the infants' babbling almost instantly became more mature, the scientists say. …

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