When we read, it’s very easy for us to tell individual words apart: In written language, spaces are used to separate words from one another. But this is not the case with spoken language – speech is a stream of sound, from which the listener has to separate words to understand what the speaker is saying.
This task isn’t difficult for adults who are familiar with the words of their language. But what about babies, who have almost no linguistic experience? How do they even begin to separate, or “segment,” individual words from the stream of language that they hear all around them all of the time?
As a researcher interested in early language production, I am fascinated by how babies begin acquiring knowledge of their language, and how parents and other caregivers can support them in this task.
Babies first start learning language by listening not to individual words, but to the rhythm and intonation of the speech stream – that is, the changes between high and low pitch, and the rhythm and loudness of syllables in speech. Parents often exaggerate these features of the language when talking with their infants, and this is important for early language learning.
Nevertheless, some may feel that using this exaggerated speech style is condescending, or unrealistic in comparison to adult speech, and as such does not set babies off to a good start.
Is “baby talk” really good for babies?
How babies learn
Even before a baby is born, the process of learning language has already begun. In the third trimester of pregnancy, when the infant’s ears are sufficiently developed, the intonation patterns of the mother’s speech are transmitted through the fluids in the womb.
brett jordan, CC BY
This is thought to be like listening to someone talking in a swimming pool: It’s difficult to make out the individual sounds, but the rhythm and intonation are clear. This has an important effect on language learning. By the time an infant is born, she already has a preference for her mother’s language. At this stage the infant is able to identify language through its intonation patterns.
For example, French and Russian speakers place emphasis on different parts of a word or sentence, so the rhythm of these two languages sounds different. Even at four days old, babies can use this information to distinguish their own language from an unfamiliar other language.
This means that the newly born infant is ready to start learning the language that surrounds her; she already has an interest in her mother’s language, and as her attention is drawn to this language she begins to learn more about the features and patterns within it.