Throughout their first year, infants coo and babble as a way to communicate with their caregivers. If you work with babies, you are probably used to hearing them make a variety of sounds throughout the day and you might even notice differences in sounds that each infant makes. Did you know that babbling is actually an important part of language development?
On NPR’s podcast, Hidden Brain, an episode entitled “Baby Talk” looked at babbling and its role in development. Rachel Albert is an assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania who studies infant language development. She shared that when infants babble, they are putting themselves in a state of being ready to learn! When babies are babbling, they are more receptive to new information. Rather than quietly looking at an object, infants use babbling as a way to be active communication partners to engage in and make sense of the world around them.
Social Feedback Loop
Often, we think of ourselves as the teachers of language, while babies sit and absorb all of the speech that they hear. However, this isn’t actually the case! Infants are playing as much of a role in these interactions as caregivers. When infants babble, they are changing their opportunity for learning by changing what their caregiver says in response.
This is referred to as a “social feedback loop.” When an infant babbles, the caregiver will respond to their sound. That particular response will change what the child says next. The two will go back and forth, influencing each other in real time.
4 Distinct Categories of Babbling
If you listen closely, you might notice that babbling often falls into 4 distinct categories. Each has different sounds and will elicit a different response from caregivers.
QRV or “Quasi-resonant vocalization” – These sounds are nasally and are often interpreted as fussing.
FRV or “Fully-resonate vocalization” – These sounds start at 3-4 months old when babies vocal tracts open up, and they are able to make more open sounds, such as “oh” and “ah.” Caregivers tend to recognize these as more speech-like and are often more likely to respond to these types of sounds.
MSFR or “Marginal syllable” – When infants begin to use consonant sounds with the vowels, typically these will include sounds with the letters d or j.
Canonical Syllable – These are “baba” or “dada” sounds, that we typically know as babbling. Babies will start making these specific sounds around 9 months of age, and caregivers will often interpret these as infants trying to say words.