Science Turns to Baby Talk; A North Wales Baby Is Helping Scientists Research Why, When and How We Learn Our First Language. Alun Prichard Reports

Daily Post (Liverpool, England), July 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

Science Turns to Baby Talk; A North Wales Baby Is Helping Scientists Research Why, When and How We Learn Our First Language. Alun Prichard Reports


ONE-year-oldSonny loves the spotlight. As his excitement grows, he begins to flap his arms like an enthusiastic fledgling and gurgles at his increasing army of admirers.

Since his arrival in the dull 1960s brick laboratory, Sonny Roberts has drawn more smiles than the greatest of comedians with his wide-eyed interest in the computers and scientists that surround him.

Even when his feathery infant hair is encased in a white skull cap that trails wires like a multicoloured jellyfish, Sonny smiles at the research team that have flocked to him and manages to make academics regress before his eyes.

The research group at the University of Wales, Bangor's School of Psychology is relying on the young brains of Sonny from Rhosgadfan in the Nantlle Valley and other babies like him as they try to learn more about how and at what stages infants learn different aspects of languages.

Sonny waves a rattle,makes gurgling noises and wriggles his toes for almost an hour. Then he's presented with a certificate declaring him the proud owner of an honorary degree as an ``infant scientist''.

His only responsibility was to play with his mum, sister and a research assistant as different words were piped into the room.

At the beginning of the session,Dr Guillaume Thierry picked out a small cap, with a series of wires connected to the laboratory's computers, and slipped it on to the baby boffin's head. Sonny gurgled contentedly while warm gel was applied in preparation for the head gear.

As the tight cap clasped his tiny head, it appeared almost tortuous, but Sonny smiled and paid it no attention, quickly putting everyone at ease. His mother Debra's confidence and Sonny's lack of interest in the procedure implied that although the procedure looks unpleasant, it is quite comfortable.

``The department phoned me to explain everything they would do,'' said Debra.

``I was wary in the beginning,but it was a brilliant experience.'' Plugged into the computer,Sonny focused on a purple alligator as Dr Thierry shut the door and decamped to a bank of computers in an adjoining room.

``At 11 months, babies do not have the ability to communicate, so they can't tell you if they know a word or what it means. The only way we can get information on whether they recognise language is by measuring the brain activity,'' says Dr Thierry in a soft French accent.

He goes on to explain that each baby sits in the silent room with his or her mother while familiar and unfamiliar words are piped in on speakers. The computers measure the baby's brain's reaction to these words. These reactions will help to tell the researchers how humans learn language and what it is about a word that a baby's brain picks up on.

A computer to his left shows line after line of jagged, beeping peaks and troughs. To his right is a small black and white monitor that shows Sonny in the next room.

``What we do with the CCTV camera is look at the baby at all times and decide if we are going to send the stimulus [words]or not,if the baby is very active or crying or whatever, we have to wait until he or she calms down,''explains Dr Thierry.

As a squeak from a toy next door drowns out the tap of computer keys, Dr Thierry adds: ``Brain activity is very sensitive to body movements, so if a baby starts moving or screaming or blinking, then it will create activity that is unrelated.

``But we don't actually have many problems because babies are usually very happy; there are lots of toys and people playing with them. …

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