Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

The amazing baby brain

If you were watching television with the sound turned off, do you think you could tell what language the actors were speaking in?

Babies can, according to new research. At least, they can tell whether a face is speaking their native language or a foreign language.

When babies are around four to six months old, it doesn't seem like they really do much except look around, grab stuff and drool a lot. Actually, their brains are already hard at work laying down the groundwork for the language that they'll be speaking in a few years.

Babies are taking everything in at this stage. They're hearing all kinds of rhythms and patterns when grownups and kids talk to them, and this is the first step in figuring out how to speak.

Whitney Weikum of the University of British Columbia and hear colleagues wanted to know whether babies also use their eyes during this learning process.

They showed some babies a series of silent video clips showing adults saying sentences in English and French. They measured how long the babies looked at each section of the video, because babies look at new things for longer periods of time than they do for familiar things.

The researchers learned that, between four and six months, infants can tell the difference between their own, familiar language and a new, foreign language just by watching the faces of the people talking. No sound required!

Babies that were eight months old were not as good at doing this, which suggests that four to six months is a particularly important period for the brain to learn how to match faces with language.

There was one exception: eight month-old babies from bilingual (French- and English-speaking) families were still very good at telling the difference between French- and English-speaking faces. Why do you think that might be? Maybe their brains had been getting a lot of practice switching between different languages!

This study appears in the 25 May issue of the journal Science.