Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Babies are Lip-Readers

Babies learn language in many ways. Scientists have discovered that babies are good at listening for grammatical trends to decipher meaning, assigning physical properties to new sounds, detecting emotions in a person's voice and so much more. Now researchers have discovered a different skill used for language acquisition by babies: lip reading.

When you hear your baby babbling about "baba," "shooshoo," and "whoa, whoa, whoa," it seems clear that they're trying to work out the sounds of words, but they might be trying to replicate the shape of a person's lips too. Scientists have discovered that during the transition between gibberish and actually pronouncing their first words that babies are intently watching the lips of those who are talking to them and trying to mimic the movements used to make the same sounds. David Lewkowicz, head researcher of the Florida Atlantic University research team that made the discovery, says: "The baby in order to imitate you has to figure out how to shape their lips to make that particular sound they’re hearing." The transition period typically occurs at approximately six months of age and by about one year, babies begin looking people in the eyes more often as they speak. However, babies who hear a new language at this age will return to staring at a person's lip as they speak.

The discovery was made by introducing babies of varying ages to different languages and seeing where their visual attention was drawn. While watching someone speak English, the four-month-olds mostly looked into the speaker's eyes, the six-month-olds looked about equally as often into the person's eyes as at their lips and the eight-month-olds mostly gazed at the person's lips. The 12-month-olds gazed in the speaker's eyes more often. Once the speaker spoke Spanish, the 12-month-olds turned their gaze back towards the lips.

The findings shed a lot of light on language development and could provide some clues for babies with developmental disorders, such as autism. Overall, the research clearly illustrates the importance of face-to-face time with young infants.

Do you notice your baby looking at your lips while you speak?


HEALTHBEAT: Babies don’t just listen, they try lip-reading while turning babble into words [WashPo]