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#FreshFromTheLab: Babies Know Their Grammar

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this time the latest news about development science comes from the Babylab of the Development Psychology and Sociality Department of Padova University, where the son of one of our Certified Trainers has taken part in the research of Professor Judit Gervain and her team.

Researchers Anna Martinez, PhD and Francesca Cavicchiolo welcomed Filippo and his family. After explaining the study, researchers encouraged Filippo and his mum to play together while listening to a particular audio related to the study: this was a made-up language made of imagined words and artificial but precise grammar rules. Later researchers put on Filippo a soft helmet with sensors while he was listening to the same audio, this time while he was watching a funny video.

But what were they looking for? Here we tell you more about this study, which was kindly shared by Professor Gervain.

Where does Grammar knowledge come from? If we think about school manuals, it seems incredible that a newborn already knows some grammatical rules and that he even started recognising and learning them when he was in his mum’s tummy.

Still, the study conducted by Professor Gervain and her team in the Padova Babylab tells us that a baby can learn grammatical rules when still inside the womb. It’s easy to imagine how complex it can be studying the experience of a child in the womb, however, looking at newborns in their very first days of life, we can discover that they have already gained experiences, they have already learned “something” while living in the uterus. During this period and up until the first year of life a wonderful process happens: it’s called native language tuning, which is the discovery of those sounds the language is made of: words, structure and grammar of the language (or languages!) spoken by the baby’s mum (we will have to wait until the first birthday in order to learn proper words, but everything begins here).

In the last fifty years scientists have studied (and are still studying) how this happens and we still have a long way to go in understanding the matter to the core, but we are certain about some things. Today, we know that a baby only 1-2 days old can recognise some very simple rules, which look like a language’s grammar. Basic skills – far from learning the use conditional at school – but a newborn can recognise and learn repetition, or reduplication: that’s why in many languages, almost in an universal way, the first words spoken by children have two identical syllables: for example da-da, ma-ma.

Therefore, since the beginning, our children are able to recognise shapes, rules and structures used in a real language.

What do scientists do to understand how children learn? In these past fifty years, Development Psychology researchers have been using several methods, especially when a child couldn’t answer verbally: observing his behaviour for instance, where he directs his glance, which pictures or objects his attention pauses on or using a “magic dummy”, connected to a computer recording the suction’s intensity and frequency – which increase when the baby is interested in something. In the past twenty years, researchers have started to use neuroimaging techniques: safe methods, not invasive and well tolerated which, thanks to a small helmet, let scientists see which brain areas activate when the baby listens to sentences in his native language or in a foreign language. Even when he sleeps!

Thanks to these techniques, Professor Gervain’s research team, which works with under one years old, has discovered that already in his prenatal life, a baby learns his native language’s prosody, which is the musicality, the tuning, the melody and the rhythm of the language spoken by his mum: at birth, indeed, the baby’s brain respond in a different way to the prosody of his native language rather than to the one of an unknown language. A newborn can recognise the rules of repetition connected not only to music and visual stimuli, but also those linked specifically to the language elaboration. This skill is universal at the beginning, children are really “citizens of the world” (link TED Talk

But regarding language acquisition, learning also means “forgetting”. In order to specialise in our native language and tune to it, there is a price to pay: around the end of the first year, children lose their astonishing ability to learn every sound and every rule of any language in the world (even if a certain plasticity remains until preadolescence). Sure, we know very well that we can learn a foreign language at any age, but if we learn it when adults we don’t reach the same results that we would if we were exposed to that same language in the early years. Keeping this ability would require an extraordinary effort and won’t let us be real experts of our native language, which is something biologically more useful in order to live in our specific social context.

These studies have led scientists to an unbelievable discovery: even if babies cannot elaborate words yet, their brain area connected to language is not only extremely plastic, but also very mature, almost just like adults.

And precisely adults play an essential role in a child's language development, even if in an unconscious way. On one hand, when our children start talking, we tend to repeat some specific words, on the other hand, as we said before, we tend to unconsciously choose two-syllable words. This happens according to one of those circles of natural perfection which assures us not only surviving, but thriving and involves two aspects:

The first one, linked to our species evolution which ensured that an adult’s brain would become sensitive to a baby’s signals: a baby is extremely dependent on adults, unlike other species where cubs are almost completely independent, and the human brain develops very slowly, in an almost 20-22 years long process. So the parent’s support is essential for the baby’s survival: we biologically developed the unbelievable ability to decode and interpret the signals of this young creature who depends on us and can’t verbally communicate.

The second one involves the child: today scientists have discovered that during interactions the baby has an active role, since he stimulates and responds to the adult so that he can obtain the reactions and responses needed. We said earlier that a 6-9 month old baby can communicate through vocalisation and lallation and his parent instinctively responds by repeating the child’s syllables, maybe changing the tuning, adding something. The parent then observes whether the child has a reaction and, if this behaviour is functional to the child’s learning, he repeats it. Like a sort of repeated interactions feedback-loop where both parts provide unconsciously information supporting the baby’s development. Just like scientists do in their labs.

If this wasn’t enough, it’s even more astonishing that the whole social environment around the baby tends to promote his language development: not only his parents but everyone involved in the baby’s care (siblings, grandparents, extended family) can decode his signals and, on his part, the baby elicits the response needed. This happens through the eye gaze, though play and talking.

We are all adults “stimulated in the relationship” and biologically pushed to nurture children’s language development. Even when we don’t realise it, our brain knows how to best support the little humans around us… let’s allow ourselves some time to enjoy this wonderful role we have even when we don’t think about it.

How the research works in Padova University BabyLab

In Padova University BabyLab several professors and researchers study different aspects of development in the Early Years (0-5): language development, but also social skills, face recognition, affective touch, the link between movement and cognitive development and the development of mathematical skills.

From the families’ perspective these are short studies (usually lasting 5-10 minutes), enjoyable for the children, easy and playful. Data is collected through different techniques: observing the eye gaze, manipulating objects and neuroimaging. “We book an appointment according to the family’s availability – says Professor Gervain – we explain the study and answer questions and curiosities. At the end the child is given a little scientist “certificate” and the family is given pictures if they wish. After a couple of months, we try to give group feedback (we don’t provide assessments on single children), sending the first results of the research to the parents”.

Professor Judit Gervain Professor at the Department of Developmental and Social Psychology at Padova University, and senior research scientist (directeur de recherche) at the Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition Center (CNRS & Université Paris Descartes) Specialising in Linguistics, Judit Gervain studies language development from a biological point of view, especially “where does language come from”: we are indeed the only animals using a complex language and this is very interesting from an evolutionary perspective. In particular, Professor Gervain is working on understanding what happens inside a baby’s mind before s/he starts talking, examining how language develops. Starting from the child, from the very early stages, allows to reduce experience contribution – very dominant in adults – and to include both biological factors and the experience role in the development of skills concerning language.

Our network of Certified Trainers is a precious resource. We like to thank Giulia Terranova, Certified Trainer Il Parto Positivo and BabyBrains, for sharing her experience at the BabyLab and writing this text for our readers.

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