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Study Finds that Babies’ Earliest Language Understanding Begins with Rhythm

Apr 23, 2024    |   Research Updates for ECE Educators

Recent research from a study published in the journal  Nature Communications concludes that babies build a framework for learning language by following the rhythm of the words and sentences their caregivers speak to them. This happens during the first months of life, prior to the age of  7 months when infants first begin to process phonetic sounds. 

Infants are attracted to the rhythm of the songs and sentences that their parents and caregivers share with them. Nursery rhymes and rhythmic songs like the “a,b,c” alphabet song are especially good for babies because they include the periodic rise and fall of tones. Professor Usha Goswami, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge and the study’s author said, “(Parents and adult caregivers) should talk and sing to their babies as much as possible, or use infant-directed speech like nursery rhymes, because it will make a difference to language outcomes.”

These findings are consistent with previous research about parentese, the sing-song tone of voice that caregivers typically use when they speak with infants. Parentese is higher-pitched than usual, and is characterized by long, slow sounds that go up and down in pitch. A 2020 study of parents and infants found that parent’s use of parentese and vocal turn-taking with their 6-to-18 month old infants had a positive impact on their child’s vocal and language development. The more frequent the use of parentese in adult-child interactions, the more often infants used vocalizations to communicate, and the more words they were able to say at the age of 18 months.

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