A new study says babies can be primed for optimal language learning when taught to recognise sounds that imply language as young as four months, before they are old enough to talk.
"Young babies are constantly scanning the environment to identify sounds that might be language," says Dr. April Benasich, who directs the Infancy Studies Laboratory at the Rutgers University Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience.
"This is one of their key jobs, as between 4 and 7 months of age they are setting up their pre-linguistic acoustic maps."
Areas of interconnected brain cells start to form as babies learn to deconstruct spoken language quickly and automatically, which are what Dr Benasich refers to as acoustic maps.
In the study dedicated to acoustic grooming, 49 healthy infants from monolingual English speaking families with no family history of language learning problems were split into three groups at random, including a control group.
The two test groups were designated as the Active learning group in which babies attention was recruited to the variable acoustic environment and the Passive learning group which was exposed to sounds without effort to make sure they were paying attention.
The research team taught the babies to pay attention to increasingly complex audio tracks made up of nonsense language by rewarding them when they shifted their eyes towards a corresponding video when the sound changed.
After just six weekly training sessions, electroencephalogram (EEG) readings said the babies were in the Active learning group quicker to catch on to language-like sounds than those in the Passive and control groups.
"We gently guided the babies' brains to focus on the sensory inputs which are most meaningful to the formation of these maps," says Dr. Benasich, who remarked that parents shouldn't view her findings as a recipe for raising a super human.
While the efficiency at which language can be learned can be ameliorated, it depends on the child's natural scope, she says, comparing it to how children who eat right might attain the tallest height their genetic composition would allow for, but not become giants.
According to Dr. Benasich, an itneractive toy is in the works to help parents prime their children. For more information, see the RU Infancy Study Lab home page.
The study will appear in the October issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.