May 24, 2003 

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Baby Talk (video)
February 27, 2003

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Interviewee: Stanislas Dehaene, National Institute for Health and Medical Research, France.

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Produced by Lisa Chemery and Brad Kloza

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Elsewhere on the web

Infants may offer clues to language development

Center for Mind, Brain & Learning - U of Washington

Speech Development in the Infant and Toddler -

How early can babies tell “baby talk” from real language?

As this ScienCentral News video reports, French researchers with a unique look at babies’ brains found that our way with words comes a lot earlier than you might expect.

Early learners

Put a 2-month-old in your lap and inevitably you’ll find yourself uttering a few coochie-coos or bah-bah-boos. It seems natural, since that’s about all the 2-month-old is going to be able to say to you. But recent research suggests once again that it’s easy to underestimate babies.

Neurobiologist Stanislas Dehaene and his colleagues at the National Institute for Health and Medical Research in France, used functional 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,” says Dehaene.

While the babies were in the MRI machine, the scientists played a recording of someone reading a children’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 speech.

“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 “terra incognita.”

“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 prosody of speech, the intonation of speech? All these are open questions for further research.”

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 France’s National Center for Scientific Research, France’s National Institute for Health and Medical Research, France’s Federated Institute of Research, and the McDonnell Foundation.

by Brad Kloza

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