Spy - Infants are more likely to view an object when another
person looks with open, not closed, eyes. (1/14/03)
to Talk to Kids - New research shows that the way we speak
to children has a huge effect on their language comprehension.
Elsewhere on the web
may offer clues to language development
for Mind, Brain & Learning - U of Washington
Development in the Infant and Toddler - KidSource.com
How early can babies tell “baby talk” from real language?
As this ScienCentral News video reports, French researchers with a unique look
at babiesâ€™ brains found that our way with words comes a lot earlier
than you might expect.
Put a 2-month-old in your lap and inevitably youâ€™ll find yourself uttering
a few coochie-coos or bah-bah-boos. It seems natural, since thatâ€™s about
all the 2-month-old is going to be able to say to you. But recent research
again that itâ€™s easy to underestimate babies.
Dehaene and his colleagues at the National
Institute for Health and Medical Research in France, used
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity of healthy
2- and 3-month-old infants. fMRI is a safe way to see which areas of the brain
are active at certain times by detecting increased blood flow to those areas.
“In this way we could see what areas of the brain are active at this
very young age, and compare them with areas that are normally active in adults,”
While the babies were in the MRI machine, the scientists played a recording
of someone reading a childrenâ€™s
book in French. They also played the same recording backwards. “And
this makes the speech completely unintelligible—it's not understandable,”
says Dehaene. “But acoustically it's the same—it's the same frequencies.”
The fMRI results showed that areas of the brain that we know adults use for
language were much more active in the babies during forward speech than backward
“What we found is that there are brain areas that [can differentiate]
between forward speech and backward speech,” he says, “which means
that the baby already knows something about the structure of a normal language.
And it knows that backward speech cannot be a normal language.”
Behavioral studies have suggested that this is true, but this is the first
time brain imaging studies have backed them up.
Nature vs. Nurture
This study also gets at what has been a question of debate for some time. Are
human brains “blank slates” that are disorganized and get structured
by the environment? Or are they hard-wired for language before birth, needing
only some fine-tuning to a few parameters of speech?
“Our results do not resolve this debate, but they constrain it to some
extent,” says Dehaene. “We find that there is not so much disorganization
in the infant brain. It's already the same areas as in adults that are being
activated by speech.”
Additionally, the researchers found that an area of the brain that was previously
thought to be silent in the first months of life was in fact active according
to their results. This particular area, the right prefrontal cortex, deals
with attention and effort.
Still, Dehaene himself points out that this study is “only scratching
the surface of the function of the infant brain,” which he considers
“We want to study the areas that respond to language much more,”
he says. “We want to understand what they code for. Are they responsive
only to phonemes, or syllables? Are they already responsive to words? When
does the baby know about syntax? When does he start to understand something
about the sentences? What areas are responsible for learning the
of speech, the intonation of speech? All these are open questions for further
In addition, he and his team would like to look at the visual functions of
the brain, as well as more abstract knowledge, like numbers.
Their work, which was published in the journal Science,
was funded by Franceâ€™s National
Center for Scientific Research, Franceâ€™s National
Institute for Health and Medical Research, Franceâ€™s Federated
Institute of Research, and the McDonnell