• Laurel Fish

Talk to Me, Baby!

#Freshfromthelab newly titled Dr. Anna Kolesnik has spent the past three years of her PhD at Birkbeck University's CBCD shedding light on pre-verbal (before speech) infant language development.

The brain is made up of different regions that are specialised to control distinct processes and behaviours such as speech, vision, and moving. From the time when we are in the womb, our brains are continuously growing and developing. When a particular region of the brain is sufficiently developed, the behaviours that region is in charge of will become apparent or, in parenting language, your infant will hit a “milestone”.

So, let’s put that in the context of speech. Many of you with children will know that often an infant’s ability to understand speech comes way before they can speak themselves. Before 12-months, typically a toddler will have built up a small vocabulary of words that they understand the meaning of and will respond to. For example, my niece when she was 10-months old could only babble and make a range of (sometimes slightly odd) sounds. Yet, she thoroughly enjoyed waving at me when I said: “bye-bye”– demonstrating that she knew “bye-bye” meant that it was her cue to wave goodbye to me and that I was going to leave. It was only when she was around 18-months she started to say “bye-bye” herself – 18-months being the average age at which Broca’s area (an area in the brain dedicated to speech production) reaches a sufficient level of maturity.

But that’s not to say your input doesn’t benefit your child’s language development! Their language development isn’t biologically set in stone. In fact, the environment in which you expose your baby to is VERY important! This environmental exposure is what allows such brain regions, and ultimately behaviour, to become specialised.

Just before finishing her PhD at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck University, Dr. Anna Kolesnik presented a fascinating overview of the last three years of her research where she has been exploring pre-verbal (before speech) infant language development. One topic of particular interest to Anna is how different language experience impacts an infant’s language development. Using high-tech infant friendly eye-tracking technology, Anna demonstrated differences in processing of language between 5 and 14 months, with some interesting differences in babies who hear more than one language in the home. In an active choice task, babies were to look at either the right or left side of the screen where they were shown videos of English or Italian baby-friendly phrases. Although there were no differences in which language the babies ‘preferred’, the ones with additional language experience in the home showed a bigger pupil dilation, especially towards English phrases. Babies in this group also showed slower reaction times overall relative to babies who only heard English in the home. Anna concluded that babies engage equally with simple phrases that are oriented towards them, irrespective of the language itself. But, babies who hear more than one language in the home engaged more cognitive effort to process the task. This shows the impact of linguistic environments on language development processes from a very early age, even before the production of their first words.

Anna’s findings highlight the impact of providing a rich language environment for your little one from a very early age, and most importantly that they will engage with baby-directed speech in any language. Now, I am not saying that you need to learn and speak a new language around your child in order to provide them with the best possible environment for their language development. But you can try the below tips to help enrich their language environment to encourage well rounded language development. 

Top tips for encouraging your infant’s language development

1. Let your baby see you talking

From a very early age, it is important to speak to your baby. Let them see your mouth moving as you speak. This will allow their brains to begin tuning into how the language they are exposed to sounds and how their mouth should move when producing those sounds. Infants learn through imitation; therefore, they need to see as well as hear you speak. Check out this sweet video of imitation in action.

2. Have a chat

Language is for communication. And communicating means allowing others to speak. Demonstrate to your infant how to communicate by having a chat with them. Even though they might still only be babbling, allow them to babble away and when they have finished try copying the sounds they made. Take it in turns to babble to each other. You could then try adding new sounds or words and see how they react. Here’s an adorable video of a dad having a chat with his babbling infant.

3. Read to your baby

Reading is a great way to support your baby’s language development. It enriches vocabulary and boosts communication skills. With books, you can introduce important learning in a fun and interactive way – such as stories, numbers, letters, and colours. You don’t have to stick to the words either! Baby books are covered in pictures, maybe if your baby shows interest in a particular picture you could take time describing it to them. 

4. Help them label objects

Language can only be learned through abundant exposure. An object and word needs to be associated a certain number of times for the brain to “click” and make the connection between the two. If your baby shows you an object, be sure to label it first before you make any comments about the object. This is also very important in families where more than one language is spoken.

5. Don’t get frustrated!

Just because little Chloe at the parent toddler group can now say “mama”, yet your little one is still only babbling, it doesn’t mean they are falling behind! Babies learn and grow at different speeds. Be patient and let them develop in their own time, and maybe try out a few of the tips mentioned above.

Check out more fun things you can do to encourage your baby’s language development on the BabyBrains app.

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