How Talking to Your Baby in a High-Pitched Voice Boosts Their Language Skills

Laughing Infant Baby

Research indicates that early social interactions, characterized by engaging in “parentese,” positively affect infant language development by enhancing brain activity in areas associated with attention. This foundational study underscores the crucial role of adult-baby interactions in fostering early language skills.

The sight of a parent engaging with their baby is universally touching. Speaking in a melodious, high-pitched tone—often called “parentese”—the parent reacts warmly to the baby’s coos and movements, frequently sharing smiles and making eye contact.

These connections don’t just make for a touching sight. New research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) shows they’re important for infant language growth, too.

In a study published April 8 in Current Biology, researchers used a safe and noninvasive brain-imaging technique called magnetoencephalography, or MEG, to monitor infant brain activity during social and nonsocial interactions with the same adult. They found that when the adult talked and played socially with a 5-month-old baby, the baby’s brain activity particularly increased in regions responsible for attention — and the level of this type of activity predicted enhanced language development at later ages. This ‘social’ scenario was compared with a ‘nonsocial’ scenario in which the adult turned away from the baby to talk to another person. This interaction showed lower activity levels in the same brain areas.

Groundbreaking Study Findings

“This is the first study to directly compare infant brain responses to adult-infant social interaction versus nonsocial interaction, and then follow up with the children until they reached the age of 2.5 to see how the early brain activation relates to the child’s future language abilities,” said lead author Alexis Bosseler, research scientist at I-LABS.

The MEG brain-imaging technology allowed the baby to move and interact naturally with the adult, which enabled researchers to track the firing of neurons from multiple areas in the baby’s brain as the adult talked to, played with, and smiled at the baby. They then monitored the infant’s brain activity a second time as the adult turned away and paid attention to someone else.

These actions naturally occur every day between adults and babies, and the study showed they have different measurable effects on a baby’s brain. Researchers found that increased neural activity in response to the social interaction at 5 months predicted enhanced language development at five later ages: 18, 21, 24, 27, and 30 months. The researchers tracked infants’ language development using a well-documented and validated survey that asks parents about words and sentences their infants say at home.

Significance of Early Interaction and Future Research

“The connection between early brain reactions and later language is consistent with scientists’ fascination with the early age period and opens up many new questions that we, and others, will be exploring,” said co-author Andrew Meltzoff, I-LABS co-director and a UW professor of psychology.

Researchers chose 5-month-old babies for the study because that age is just before the “sensitive period” for speech-language learning, which begins at about 6 months. Once this period begins, it’s especially important for infants to observe adults because attention enhances learning.

Using parentese with infants represents an intuitive desire to connect, said Patricia Kuhl, senior author and co-director of I-LABS.

“There’s an implicit understanding that language is about connection,” Kuhl said. “It’s about a communicative pathway between you and the other. This starts in infancy with the desire to make that communicative connection.”

The study’s results are particularly important for parents and early educators to understand, Kuhl said.

“We knew from previous work that social interaction is essential at 9 months of age for foreign-language learning, but the current study shows that social interaction plays a role much earlier,” Kuhl said. “The study shows that parents’ natural use of parentese, coupled with smiles, touch, and their warm back-and-forth responses to the baby’s actions, have a real-world, measurable impact on the baby’s brain. We theorize that this parenting behavior, which we call ‘the social ensemble,’ captures and holds infants’ attention and motivates them to learn at a critical time in development.”

Reference: “Infants’ brain responses to social interaction predict future language growth” by Alexis N. Bosseler, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Steven Bierer, Elizabeth Huber, Julia C. Mizrahi, Eric Larson, Yaara Endevelt-Shapira, Samu Taulu and Patricia K. Kuhl, 8 April 2024, Current Biology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.03.020

The study was funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

1 Comment on "How Talking to Your Baby in a High-Pitched Voice Boosts Their Language Skills"

  1. Servelan Blake | April 14, 2024 at 10:25 am | Reply

    Babies learn language by lip reading and associating the sounds with the lip movements, so talking with babies is IMHO more important than the pitch of your voice.

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