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Social Interaction Provides Key to Infant Language Learning
“You, the parent or caregiver, are the best toy in the room.”
Parents who want to help their babies learn to speak don't need to invest in computers or fancy toys. They need to spend time with their babies.
“You, the parent or caregiver, are the best toy in the room,” says Gina Lebedeva, summing up the research article “Early Language Acquisition: Cracking the Code” by University of Washington researcher Patricia K. Kuhl. Kuhl, co-director of the UW Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, is internationally recognized for her research on early language and brain development, and studies on how young children learn.
The article’s number one message for parents “is that early social interaction is so important,” says Lebedeva, the Translation, Outreach and Education Director at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. When an infant’s earliest relationships are based on emotional warmth and responsiveness from the caregiver, it greatly enhances the baby’s attention and learning skills, and increases the ability to hone in on the most important features of the language to be learned. One such skill is statistical learning, which is the ability to track, sort and categorize sounds and visual patterns.
“It’s not about how they interact with toys or other things; it’s all about how they interact with you. Your responsiveness is what they’re learning from,” says Labedeva.
Kuhl’s survey of the latest research, published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, found the best thing you can do to facilitate language development is participate socially with your infant. Social interaction is the driver of communication.
Researchers can measure social interaction in all kinds of ways, but “motherese” – the special way most humans talk to babies – is one of the most important.
“‘Motherese’ is a natural way of enriching and enhancing speech quality for infants, which we believe helps infants learn sounds and words,” Lebedeva says. “Infants need to be exposed to this kind of input through live social interactions, as opposed to TV or other media.”
Infants also need to have that “back and forth turn-taking and gaze-following” that happens only in a face-to-face social interaction, she adds.
“Infants are experts at following the gaze of adults, which helps them learn about both the intentions of the adult, as well as meanings of words. They will look where you are looking during an interaction, which isn’t something other animals will do,” Lebedeva explains.
The context of language development happens in social interaction. If you don’t have that interaction, “motherese” is less likely to happen, statistical learning is less likely to happen, and this could affect language development.
“Motherese is actually a non-PC term anymore, because it’s not just mothers that use it. Fathers, non-parent adults, and even young children use it when talking to infants. The technical term that we like to use in the lab is ‘infant-directed speech,” Lebedeva adds.
“Motherese has exaggerated pitch content and it has specific linguistic content. We tend to use very simplified words and familiar words to the child’s experience,” Lebedeva says. “We tend, for example, to duplicate sounds. We’ll say, ‘Night, night.’ ‘Pat, pat.’ We use simplified and distinct sound structure within words. This is more than just a cute signal. Infants prefer listening to infant-directed speech when given a choice, and studies suggest that it actually helps them learn.”
Scientists have found that motherese is nearly universally used in every culture, and while some people have a special way of speaking to pets, it remains distinct from the motherese used for infants.
Kuhl’s research indicates that cracking the code of language is dependent not only on our understanding of motherese, but also on our insight into the way in which infants maneuver statistical learning.
“Babies’ brains are like statistical machines,” Lebedeva says. “They are very well designed to track patterns of input in the environment.”
Patterns of inputs can occur in hand gestures, music, visuals and other types of input.
When it comes to learning either auditory or visual languages, infants are tracking the pattern of how words and parts of words come together. And by tracking the patterns, they can, based on the statistical regularities of which sounds came together, figure out what a word is, or where a word begins and ends. From this, their brains can form sound categories for their native language, which will cue them to pay more attention to those sounds in the future.
The research also shows that something called ‘neural commitment’ plays an important role in helping infants learn language by allocating connections in the brain specifically for the sounds and patterns of the native language. It also explains the difficulty older children and adults have when trying to learn a foreign language.
“The way the brain works is neurons that fire together, wire together,” says Lebedeva. “With experience these biological synapses (connections) get stronger and stronger and stronger over time with increased experience, and when those connections are strongest, it prevents other connections from being made because neural resources are now dedicated to maintaining those strong connections.”
The research reinforces the long-held notion that the early years of a baby’s life are the most important for learning language.
“We think that the critical period – between zero to three – is when your neurons are best able to form connections based simply on exposure to input,” Lebedeva says. “All the mechanisms where (infant) learning occurs are maximized in social interaction. I would say that’s the bottom line,” Lebedeva says.