Study: Babies try lip-reading in learning to talk

January 16, 2012 By LAURAN NEERGAARD , AP Medical Writer
This undated handout photo provided by Florida Atlantic University shows a baby, looking at a monitor, wearing a band that contains a little magnet that the head-tracker, under the monitor uses to determine head position which, in turn, enables the eye tracker to find the eye and the pupil. New research suggests babies don't learn to talk just from hearing sounds _ they're lip-readers, too. It happens during that magical stage when a baby's babbling gradually changes from gibberish into syllables and eventually into that first "mama" or "dada." (AP Photo/Florida Atlantic University)

Babies don't learn to talk just from hearing sounds. New research suggests they're lip-readers too.

It happens during that magical stage when a baby's babbling gradually changes from gibberish into and eventually into that first "mama" or "dada."

Florida scientists discovered that starting around age 6 months, babies begin shifting from the intent eye gaze of early to studying mouths when people talk to them.

"The baby in order to imitate you has to figure out how to shape their lips to make that particular sound they're hearing," explains David Lewkowicz of Florida Atlantic University, who led the study being published Monday. "It's an incredibly complex process."

Apparently it doesn't take them too long to absorb the movements that match basic sounds. By their first birthdays, babies start shifting back to look you in the eye again - unless they hear the unfamiliar sounds of a foreign language. Then, they stick with lip-reading a bit longer.

"It's a pretty intriguing finding," says University of Iowa Bob McMurray, who also studies . The babies "know what they need to know about, and they're able to deploy their attention to what's important at that point in development."

The new research appears in this week's issue of the . It offers more evidence that quality face-time with your tot is very important for speech development - more than, say, turning on the latest baby DVD.

It also begs the question of whether babies who turn out to have developmental disorders, including autism, learn to speak the same way, or if they show differences that just might provide an early warning sign.

Unraveling how babies learn to speak isn't merely a curiosity. Neuroscientists want to know how to encourage that process, especially if it doesn't seem to be happening on time. Plus, it helps them understand how the brain wires itself early in life for learning all kinds of things.

Those coos of early infancy start changing around age 6 months, growing into the syllables of the baby's native language until the first word emerges, usually just before age 1.

A lot of research has centered on the audio side. That sing-song speech that parents intuitively use? Scientists know the pitch attracts babies' attention, and the rhythm exaggerates key sounds. Other studies have shown that babies who are best at distinguishing between vowel sounds like "ah" and "ee" shortly before their first birthday wind up with better vocabularies and pre-reading skills by kindergarten.

But scientists have long known that babies also look to speakers' faces for important social cues about what they're hearing. Just like adults, they're drawn to the eyes, which convey important nonverbal messages like the emotion connected to words and where to direct attention.

Lewkowicz went a step further, wondering whether babies look to the lips for cues as well, sort of like how adults lip-read to decipher what someone's saying at a noisy party.

So he and doctoral student Amy Hansen-Tift tested nearly 180 babies, groups of them at ages 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 months.

How? They showed videos of a woman speaking in English or Spanish to babies of English speakers. A gadget mounted on a soft headband tracked where each baby was focusing his or her gaze and for how long.

They found a dramatic shift in attention: When the speaker used English, the 4-month-olds gazed mostly into her eyes. The 6-month-olds spent equal amounts of time looking at the eyes and the mouth. The 8- and 10-month-olds studied mostly the mouth.

At 12 months, attention started shifting back toward the speaker's eyes.

It makes sense that at 6 months, babies begin observing lip movement, Lewkowicz says, because that's about the time babies' brains gain the ability to control their attention rather than automatically look toward noise.

But what happened when these babies accustomed to English heard Spanish? The 12-month-olds studied the mouth longer, just like younger babies. They needed the extra information to decipher the unfamiliar sounds.

That fits with research into bilingualism that shows babies' brains fine-tune themselves to start distinguishing the sounds of their native language over other languages in the first year of life. That's one reason it's easier for babies to become bilingual than older children or adults.

But the continued lip-reading shows the 1-year-olds clearly still "are primed for learning," McMurray says.

Babies are so hard to study that this is "a fairly heroic data set," says Duke University cognitive neuroscientist Greg Appelbaum, who found the research so compelling that he wants to know more.

Are the babies who start to shift their gaze back to the eyes a bit earlier better learners, or impatient to their own detriment? What happens with a foreign language after 12 months?

Lewkowicz is continuing his studies of typically developing . He theorizes that there may be different patterns in children at risk of autism, something experts caution would be hard to prove.

Explore further: Study links bilingual babies' vocabulary to early brain differentiation

shares

Related Stories

Study links bilingual babies' vocabulary to early brain differentiation

August 29, 2011
Babies and children are whizzes at learning a second language, but that ability begins to fade as early as their first birthdays.

Baby lab reveals surprisingly early gift of gab

December 9, 2011
From the moment they're born, babies are highly attuned to communicate and motivated to interact. And they're great listeners.

Even before language, babies learn the world through sounds

July 11, 2011
It's not just the words, but the sounds of words that have meaning for us. This is true for children and adults, who can associate the strictly auditory parts of language -- vowels produced in the front or the back of the ...

Recommended for you

Faulty cell signaling derails cerebral cortex development, could it lead to autism?

September 20, 2017
As the embryonic brain develops, an incredibly complex cascade of cellular events occur, starting with progenitors - the originating cells that generate neurons and spur proper cortex development. If this cascade malfunctions ...

Predicting atypical development in infants at high risk for autism?

September 12, 2017
New research from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identifies a potential biomarker that predicts atypical development in 1- to 2-month-old infants at high ...

Study identifies new genetic risk factor for developing autism spectrum disorder

September 1, 2017
Autism spectrum disorder affects approximately one out of every 68 children in the United States. Despite expansive study, the origin and risk factors of the complex condition are not fully understood.

Scientists make autism advance using monkey model

August 21, 2017
Autism is a common neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social communication and restricted and repetitive behavior or interests. The reported prevalence of autism has been rising worldwide. Due to the application ...

High quality early intervention for children with autism quickly results in costs savings

August 8, 2017
One in every 68 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a neuro-developmental disorder that results in difficulty socializing and communicating needs and desires, and often is accompanied by restricted ...

Research identifies effects of cognitive behaviour therapy on parents of children with autism

August 1, 2017
Parents of children with autism experience a greater impact from their child's therapy than once thought, according to new research out of York University's Faculty of Health.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.