Supporting Language Development in Infancy 

By Christina Zhao, Ph.D. (Estimated reading time: 4 min)

A mom holding a baby on a couch while the dad plays guitar. Image credit: Helena Lopes. 

It is a wonderful experience when we hear babies babbling their first sounds, but their language learning journey starts long before that. There are many ways to support babies’ language development from the early days of their lives. 

The Science Behind Infant Speech Learning and Language Development 

Around the start of the third trimester, a baby’s auditory system becomes functional. That means their brains can now register sounds that come to their ears. By the time they are born, babies already have plenty of knowledge about the world around them through sounds. They know their birth parent’s voice as well as characteristics of the language(s) their birth parent speaks.  

Over the next few months, infants continue to soak up all the sounds in their environment. Decades of research at the University of Washington’s I-LABS have shown that the period between 6 -12 months is an important transitional period or ‘sensitive period’ for infants to learn their sounds. When babies are born, they are able to hear the difference between sounds in many languages. By twelve months, they start to become experts in their sound environment, easily identifying language sounds they hear often. But they also start to get worse at recognizing sounds that they are not exposed to. 

This transition happens for both speech sounds and music sounds. For example, by 12 months, babies growing up in a Japanese-speaking environment will already have a much harder time telling the difference between an /r/ sound and an /l/ sound (think rake and lake) than babies in English-speaking environments. This is because in Japanese, those two separate sounds do not exist. Similarly, many folk songs in the Balkan region have a 7-beat rhythm that is not used in North American music. At 12 months, North American babies who have never listened to Balkan folk music have a much harder time recognizing 7-beat rhythm than babies in the Balkan region.   

Early Intervention for Atypical Language Development 

How well infants learn sounds during this sensitive period can be an indicator of how well they are learning their native language all the way up until when they enter school. Even more importantly, it might also be indicative of atypical language development, such as Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). DLD is a communication disorder that affects at least 7% of children. However, it often goes undiagnosed and lacks timely intervention and support, largely due to a lack of knowledge and awareness in this area. 

Fortunately, DLD has now become an area of ongoing active research worldwide. A large ongoing research project in my own lab – housed within I-LABS at the UW – contributes to this fast-growing research coalition by investigating whether we can confidently identify infants who are at high-risk of developing DLD by examining their brain functions. This is the first step towards early intervention. 

Early intervention is critical as baby brains are the most open and flexible to learn from experiences. Many research studies have shown that the speech learning outcome at 12 months of age can be heavily affected by experiences with sounds infants receive prior, such as exposure to another language. And that richer sound experience is beneficial in promoting infants’ speech and language learning.  

Creating Rich Sound Experiences for Babies 

One way to provide a rich sound experience for babies is to give them high-quality language input, known as ‘infant-directed speech’ or more commonly ‘baby-talk or parentese.’ Caregivers around the world use this speech style naturally to engage with their infants, by talking slowly, with bigger contrasts in pitch, and more exaggerated vowels. Infants who hear more infant-directed speech tend to have larger vocabulary in toddlerhood. And yes, if parentese can be provided in more than one language for the baby, even better! 

Another way to provide a rich sound experience for babies is to engage in active music play with them! Language and music are both complex sounds that share many similarities. Both have variations in pitch, making up different melodies, or differentiating a question from a statement in speech. Both require rhythm, emphasizing a strong syllable or beat. Both provide opportunities to interact with infants and express emotions. In our own studies, 12 music sessions in the lab during which caregivers actively synchronize infants’ movements to musical beats, enhanced infants’ neural activities to speech sounds in many areas of the brain! It doesn’t matter what type of music – just find something you and your baby like with a good beat to move to! 

Other Resources 

If you are interested in participating in a wide range of important research with your little one, you can register at University of Washington Communication Subject Pool and a research lab at UW may contact you for upcoming research studies! 

For more information on Developmental Language Disorder, visit DLD and me

Understanding DLD is a researcher-run support group on Facebook for families affected by DLD. 

Learn more about children’s communication in the first year of life via I-LABS Learning Module: Learning the Sounds of Language

Three Ways to Support Children’s Early Music Experiences!  

Language-Building Play 

Musical activities to do at home 

About the Author

Christina Zhao, Ph.D. is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington. She directs the Lab for Early Auditory Perception (LEAP), housed within the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). She has been fascinated by human brains as well as sounds for as long as she can remember, and she feels extremely lucky to conduct research on infant neural mechanisms supporting language acquisition and the effects of music on language learning. She is mother to a Kindergartener, through whom she has watched all her research come to life.  

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