Babies start learning language before birth

Interview with Evelyne Mercure, PhD, research fellow at UCL specialising in the impact of early language experience on infant brain development.

One wonders how many hours Evelyne Mercure's days have. She works at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience investigating the impact of early language experience on infants’ brain and cognitive development (on the prestigious Future Research Leader fellowship from the Economic and Social Research Council). She has three children aged 7 and under. She finds time to be on our advisory board. She has recently finished reviewing our app, which you can find both on the Google Play Store and soon on the App Store, too.

We had a chat with her and were blown away by her wisdom. She is a rigorous scientific mind combined with a truly loving heart, theoretical knowledge so beautifully integrated with realistic practice, and a constant strive to be of service. Definitely worth reading the interview right to the end!

Babybrains: What is the one thing you have learned in your studies that no parent should ignore?

Dr Evelyne Mercure: Language learning starts long before the first words. Babies actually start learning language even before birth. On their first day out of the womb, they can already recognise (and prefer!) their native language and their mum’s voice, which means that some aspects of language and voice processing are learned prenatally.

For this reason, it is never too early to speak to your baby! Speaking to your baby in short simple sentences, as often as possible and as early as possible, will help them learn language. It may seem that young babies do not ‘get’ what you are saying, but they enjoy hearing your voice! They are using your sentences to learn the sounds, rhythm and structure of language. Babies have an impressive capacity for language learning. Make sure you make the most of it!

Start talking to your baby during pregnancy. If that's too awkward, you can break the ice by reading a book to her.

Babybrains: Can you tell us a little bit more about your own research field?

Dr Evelyne Mercure: I am interested in babies’ early communication the brain networks involved in processing the human voice, language and faces. I also have a special interest in studying how early communicative experience shapes brain and cognitive development in babies. I am currently running a research project studying hearing infants with Deaf parents. These infants are fascinating because they do not have any sensory deprivation (they hear just fine), but they do have a very different experience of communication. If a Deaf mother mainly uses sign language in her daily communication, her baby is likely to have reduced exposure to auditory spoken language (such as spoken English). Also, these babies represent a very special case of bilingualism. They experience one language in the visual modality, like British Sign Language (BSL), as well as one in the auditory modality, like English (which can be used by the mother, as well as by hearing relatives and the rest of the hearing community). I am studying the brain and cognitive development of hearing infants with a Deaf mother in comparison to hearing infants with monolingual and bilingual hearing parents. This research will help us understand how infant development is shaped by early experience of communication.

Infant fMRI. Yes, there is actually a sleeping baby in there.

Babybrains: What is your most exciting finding so far?

Dr Evelyne Mercure: My most exciting finding so far is that young infant use very similar brain areas to adults when representing the human voice and its emotional content (see here for publications, NDR). This was a technically very difficult study in which we scanned young infants in functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) machines. Babies had to be in natural sleep in order to avoid movements that would have blurred our images (picture above). When babies were in the scanner, we presented them with different types of sounds and measured their brain activity. It was striking to see how areas of the ‘social brain’ are already specialised for processing social sounds such as human vocalisations from the first few months of life (picture below).

Voice Sensitive Activation. Reproduced with permission from Blasi, Mercure, et al. "Early specialization for voice and emotion processing in the infant brain." Current Biology 21.14 (2011): 1220-1224.

Babybrains: What is your favourite method?

Dr Evelyne Mercure: In recent years, I have become more and more interested in a brain imaging technique called ‘functional near-infrared spectroscopy’ (fNIRS). This technique uses reflected light to track the increase and decrease of oxygen in different areas of the brain. When a part of the brain is active, it receives an increased amount of blood carrying oxygen. Using a special, very safe and comfortable hat that we put on babies’ head, we can study brain activation while young infants look, listen, smell, taste or feel different stimuli. I am personally interested in brain activation in response to a language baby is familiar with in comparison to a foreign language. I am also interested in comparing this ‘neural signature of language familiarity’ in different groups of babies (monolinguals, bilinguals, babies with Deaf parents…).

fNIRS participants.

Babybrains: Is there a parenting book or website you would recommend?

Dr Evelyne Mercure: There are so many books out there. I don’t know which one to recommend. One source of advice I would strongly recommend is your own intuition. Parental instinct is a set of actions that evolved in animals to maximise their offspring’s chances of survival, by avoiding danger and teaching skills required for an independent life. Instinct is a crucial part of parenting. Many books will tell parents to be ‘strong’ and resist their parental instinct of comforting their baby when they cry, for example. For some parents, it can feel like torture to do so. I think an instinct that is so strong has a reason to be. I would never follow any advice taken in a book if it feels wrong or if it contradicts my own maternal intuition.

Babybrains: Can you sing the Babybrains song?

Dr Evelyne Mercure: Of course! ;- )

Can you? Use out the video below to practice! Good fun for you and your baby coming up (even if he/she is still in your belly)!

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