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Newborns learn language within a few hours


Babies actually start processing speech and language incredibly early. They learn to recognise voices and some speech sounds as early as in the womb. But how exactly a baby's brain learns to process complex speech sounds is still a mystery. In a recent study published in "Nature Human Behaviour", the research group led by Guillaume Thierry uncovered details of this incredibly fast learning process, starting during the first hours after birth.


To this end, Thierry worked with a newborn research team in China, which tested the newborns using near-infrared spectroscopy (FNIRS). For the test, the newborns wore a cap with optical sensors. These measure blood flow in the brain using weak laser light. Areas supplied more heavily with blood reflect light differently, and oxygen saturation of the blood indicates which brain regions are currently active.


The completely safe and painless procedure was carried out within three hours of the babies' birth. Within three hours of birth, all babies were exposed to pairs of sounds that most researchers assumed they could distinguish. These included vowels such as "a" or "o", which were first played forwards and then backwards to the newborns. Normally, reverse speech is very different from normal (forward) speech, but with isolated vowels, the difference is slight. The researchers also found that adult listeners were able to distinguish between the two versions only in 70% of cases.


Immediately after birth, the newborns could not see any difference yet, but after 5 hours, the babies began to distinguish between the forward and backward vowels: they reacted faster to forward vowels than to backward vowels. This means that a baby, on its first day of life, only needs a few hours to learn the subtle difference between natural and slightly unnatural speech sounds.


The results show that babies cannot yet understand the meaning of words at such a young age. But typical "singsong" chants help children, especially in the first two years of life, to segment language better and thereby learn words and language better. As long as babies do not fully understand the content of what has been said, they pay particular attention to the tone of voice in order to discern messages.


The study is exciting not least in the light of the embodiment theory from the field of neuroscience. The theory assumes that our thoughts are not pre-programmed or part of an inherited genetic code, but rather build on the direct experience of the world around us through our sensory channels such as seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. That is why it is so important to share all possible sensory experiences with the baby immediately after birth. This means talking to them, listening to music together or letting the baby smell flowers for instance. By promoting varied experiences, you give the baby's brain new opportunities to grow and develop and probably also more creative skills for the future.


In particular, with regard to multilingual education, this study shows that you can never deal with the subject early enough. The sooner the baby comes into contact with its mother tongue, the better it can already get used to the melody of the language and thus have greater chances of building on the language in the future. It is important here to ensure that babies not only hear a lot of speech, but can use it themselves and that you listen to them.

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Studie: Yan Jing Wu, Xinlin Hou, Cheng Peng, Wenwen Yu, Gary M. Oppenheim Guillaume Thierry and Dandan Zhang, «Rapid learning of a phonemic discrimination in the first hours of life» in Nature Human Behaviour



“Das Baby hört schon am Nächsten Tag mit», Artikel im Tagesanzeiger vom 17. August 2022 von Alexandra Bröhm.



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