Newborns can develop language skills in hours

Contrary to the traditional view of newborns lying passively and crying, a recent study published in Nature Human Behavior established that newborns begin to absorb and adapt to the specifics of the world around them within hours. , including the specific languages ​​they will speak.

Babies are known to start learning language by hearing speech even when in the womb, but they can’t hear details because they’re muffled, like they’re underwater.

The study, with international contributors including Gary Oppenheim and Guillaume Thierry from Bangor University’s School of Human and Behavioral Sciences, worked with newborn babies, starting within minutes of birth using a combination of vowels played forward (i.e., naturally) and played backward (a time-reversed version of the sound).

Using optical imaging, a non-invasive form of neuroimaging, to measure changes in the body, the process involved shining tiny torches (i.e. flashlights) onto babies’ scalps. . Light shines into the body, and some bounces around and depending on what is happening in the body (eg the amount of oxygenated blood in an area of ​​the brain), a little more or a little less light will bounce back.

To achieve precise results, multiple torches were used, with their power and placement precisely controlled, as well as very precise light detectors to measure tiny changes in the amount of light bouncing around.

Recordings of spoken vowels were played back and then tested to see if their brains reacted differently when they heard those same vowels played backwards versus forwards. In the first test, babies couldn’t distinguish between front and back vowels because it’s a very subtle contrast (even adults fail this discrimination test 70% of the time).

After only five hours of exposure to this contrast, optical imaging showed that the newborns’ brains began to distinguish between the two sounds. And after two more hours, during which the newborns mostly slept, exposure to vowel contrast triggered a surge of connectivity, with neurons talking to each other on a large scale, as if they had been inspired by the sounds of the language that they heard.

Guillaume Thierry, professor of cognitive neuroscience, said: “Our research has shown that a very subtle distinction, even for the adult ear, is enough to trigger a significant increase in cerebral activity in the brain of the newborn, which which shows that early experiences have potentially major consequences for cognitive development. .

In other words, we should challenge the myth that babies are mostly aware of their surroundings only after a few weeks, just because they sleep a lot, and pay attention to what babies are exposed to from their birth.

Gary Oppenheim, Lecturer in Psychology, added: “When my son was born, I was surprised to see that he was immediately alert, with his eyes wide open and looking around to soak up information about his strange new environment (even though a newborn’s vision is known to be quite poor).

The work a newborn’s ears and auditory system do isn’t as obvious to the naked eye, but this dramatic result shows that we have a remarkable sensitivity to linguistic information from the moment we’re born and we immediately set to work developing and refining them. in response to our experiences in the world, even when we just seem to be sleeping.

Reference: Wu YJ, Hou X, Peng C, et al. Rapid learning of phonemic discrimination in the first hours of life. Nat Hum Behav. 2022:1-11. doi: 10.1038/s41562-022-01355-1

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