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Babies Are Smart From the Very Beginning

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I’ve always believed that babies catch onto things faster than a lot of people give them credit.  That’s one reason I’ve never used “baby talk” with my kids, and discourage my 5-year-old from talking like that to my 5-month-old.  “Just talk to her like a regular person,” I tell her.  “That’s how the baby learns our language, from how you speak.”   We all take pride in seeing our babies grow and develop.  I think babies are like sponges, soaking in everything around them, so the more I can facilitate that learning experience, the better.  That’s why I was interested to read about a new study that says babies might comprehend words and their meaning sooner than expected.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “had 33 babies between 6 and 9 months old view a screen with a picture of a food and a body part while sitting with their parents. The parents were given phrases to say to the child, asking them to find the apple, for instance. An eye-tracking device revealed the babies' responses to the phrases.  In a second test, the children went through the same process but saw pictures of typical food scenes and a whole person, not just body parts.” Researchers compared the responses of this age group with older babies.  In both situations, the babies seemed to look at the image of the word being spoken more than any other.  The researchers determined that this was a sign of word comprehension. 
Most psychologists believe that this type of understanding doesn’t develop until closer to one year of age, which is why these results might be surprising.  What’s also interesting is that the babies seemed to recognize categories of words.  For example, they could look at the image of the word “apple”, even if the picture of the apple was different (color, background, etc.)  That implies a greater understanding of the meaning of some words. 
“The study's authors said babies at 8 and 9 months performed no better than 6- and 7-month-old infants. They said no significant improvement was seen until the children reached about 14 months of age. They could not explain exactly why performance did not improve for so long.”
I don’t think this study means that babies are secretly geniuses (although we all think our children are brilliant, right?) who have an extensive understanding of language and meaning.  But as I said before, I think babies understand and pick up on a lot of things from a very early age.   That’s why I think it’s never too early to talk to your baby (even if it’s just telling them what you’re doing as they watch you cook dinner) and read to them regularly.  My daughter would rather chew on a book at this point than read it, but that’s okay for now. 
What do you think?

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ATHENA2010 7/22/2020
My 10mo old granddaughter astounded me when she responded to her mom asking her to clap and wave bye bye...by just asking her. I did not realize she could understand the words already! Report
CATNAP6291 6/22/2020
good article Report
ERIN_POSCH 3/20/2020
thanks for sharing Report
-POOKIE- 11/20/2019
super. Report
KHALIA2 9/26/2019
Great Article! Thanks for sharing this one! Report
We talked and read to our children from the day we brought them home from the hospital. As I walked around the house with my 5-month old son in my arms, I pointed out common household items. When I got to the "door" my son looked directly at me and made the "bye-bye" gesture with his hand. That's when I knew that babies are more cognizant than we give them credit for. Report
I believe babies are highly intelligent. But I don't worry about baby talk. So many cultures are drawn to it. It feels natural. It puts me in a happier state.
I also talk to my children and granddaughter explaining what I'm doing. What we are seeing. I've always sang to my children. I love using sign language with my granddaughter. All my children are smart. So is my granddaughter. Report
Most people sit their kids in front of the TV and do little to talk with them or read to them. Report
Babies can be eerily smart! I think it's so cool.

[Warning: here begins a nerdy lecture for anyone interested in a little anthropological trivia.]
"Baby talk," however, definitely does have a place in child language learning. It's not like it will hurt a child to never hear baby talk, but I second what BEECHNUT said about it attracting children's attention. I would add that in my studies (I have a graduate degree in anthropology, which includes cognitive and linguistic studies), I've always learned that "infant-directed speech" occurs in every society worldwide and there are certain characteristics that remain constant in each society, which indicates that these characteristics serve some kind of purpose (otherwise, why would all human populations share them?). For one thing, pitch is always exaggerated, even in tonal languages like Mandarin where differences in pitch actually affect meaning. Chinese adults still do it when speaking to babies. This is thought to help infants learn appropriate pitch contours in speech (you notice that no one ever speaks in a monotone because pitch contours provide linguistic cues - for example, in English the pitch rises at the end of a question). This happens with pet-directed speech as well, and of course animals are not going to learn how to speak, but pet-directed speech does differ from IDS in an interesting way: in IDS, the vowel sounds adults make are elongated when speaking to infants. People don't seem to do this with animals because it doesn't matter for them, but people automatically draw out their words as they speak to children and babies, suggesting that there is a specific innate purpose in doing so. This purpose is believed to be that elongating the vowels helps emphasize/demonstrate the sounds a child will need to learn to produce in order to speak his/her language.

So for those who do engage in baby talk, don't feel bad. It seems to be a very natural part of human cognitive behavior and development and it does actually serve a purpose. :)

[End nerdy lecture. Sorry, I just think it's fascinating!] Report
I totally believe babies are way more intelligent way earlier than we give them credit for. I once read that if you take what you think they know and double it, you're closer to the truth. So start modeling a healthy lifestyle early...! Report
This is all so true! I hated the baby talk words (ballie, dolly, etc GAG ME) and never used them. However, I did use the child-directed speech that Beechnut mentions.

I have never been trained in child development/psychology, but I used my gut and instincts, not following the recommended Dr Spock garbage (or any of the other similar books out about 32-35 yrs ago). Reading them, I just felt they were off track, and not for us.

Thank God I was right (for us)! I am proud to say my sons, now 32 and 31, excelled in school -- not meaning to brag, but hard not to? -- huge vocabularies, great grammar and quickly learned Spanish (I spoke Spanish a bit with them when they were growing up, as young as toddlers [I am not Hispanic, by the way, but felt it was an advantage as we were in So Calif at that time] -- and it has helped them all along the way, even at work now).

That said, my daughter-in-law used sign language with our 2 grandkids, and BOY does that help the little one communicate. So much less frustration when trying to "tell" their parents what they want or need!

Thank God the "authorities" are finally recognising that babies DO understand! I was not a freako who gave them credit for more than they deserved -- they DID understand me.. way before they could talk! Report
I'm a developmental psychologist, and you're right - babies do understand more than most people think they do. And it is NEVER too early to talk to your baby, and to read your baby books. Not in a Baby Einstein sort of way - but within the context of a warm, responsive, contingent parent-child relationship. Infant cognitive develop grows out of those socioemotional bonds between significant others, and so one that that does worry me is pushing 'academics' at a very early age (showing babies flashcards to get them to read earlier, etc.). First and foremost during that first year is cuddling baby, talking to baby, and teaching baby that Mom and Dad will be there! That trusting, loving relationship becomes the base from which the infant can explore his/her environment and learn to regulate his/her own emotions and behaviors.

One word on "baby talk" - it used to be called "motherese" and then "parentese" because Dad's use it too... but now psychologists call it "child-directed speech." And although it is annoying to hear, and shocking to hear yourself use, the higher pitch, focus on intonation, and accentuation of words actually does grab the baby's attention. Not to say someone who says "googoo gah gah" is doing a good job... but saying real words in child-directed speech in order to keep baby's attention is something worthwhile. Report
I like the article. Before computers I read books on babies, but never got the point. Living 500 miles away from all family and friends, long distance was expensive I talked to our first baby all the time. He started speaking at 5 months with "Hi". Since then he has never shut up. He's 35! Report
I believe this is totally true, but I also believe it's not any indicator of how intelligent the person will be as an adult. For example, I have 2 amazing children and my daughter was VERY alert as a baby and picked up on language and talking quickly (she took forever to learn to walk though). My son, on the other hand, wasn't quite as quick to pick up language, but he was walking way early. So, I used to joke that I'd have a jock & a nerd & that was great.

Well, now that my kids are 7 and 5, they are both very different. My daughter is my kind hearted soul who is struggling big time now with reading and languages. Her strengths lie more with humanitarianism and being a patient, kind helper. My son is now my little book worm, writing full sentences as a preschooler. He's also my fiery little guy who's not quite as nice as his sister. So, kids grow & change & go through all kinds of stages. I think it's true that babies do the same thing. If we were all the same all the time...that would be pretty boring! Little humans are just as dynamic & complex as us grown ups. :)

Great article to bring light to all this! Report
I have worked with children birth through six years for 7years. I also have my Early Childhood Education Degree, this means I am a teacher for birth through 6years. The number one thing we are told to do for language is to talk to them about everything. Also those are the best years to learn a second language. I have been teaching my toddler's how to sign from their first day at school. I am also teaching them some Spanish. It really is amazing what they can learn as long as someone is just willing to teach them. Report
Interesting comments & article.
MSPOOH404's comment on what her child said about Santa made me laugh. Report
Why are we so amazed that our littlest humans are so bright? Report
My daughter was 9 months old when I put her to bed she signed, "eat, drink," and whatever else she could to try to get out of going to bed. Boy, was I surprised! Their personalities are developed at such a young age. I still laugh whenever I think about that first day she did that. Report
Being deaf myself, we taught our son baby sign language while talking. I can't understand or lipread baby talk myself, so I refused to do that. But we were surprised at not only his understanding of nouns like apples, water, milk, various foods, toys, animals etc but also verbs. We taught him "more" ( like more food etc) and "finish" and "down" and he would respond to our verbal comments correctly and he would correctly use the right baby sign to express to us what he wanted - more milk! No more! Finish/get down (when he was done eating and ready to get down from high chair), please, thank you etc. He would also correctly indicate the correct adjective etc like "red apple" "yellow banana" or if we joked with him saying the apple was purple or the banana was red, he'd sign "No!" When he started talking around 2.5-3, he correctly verbalized HUNDREDS of words, and after awhile, my husband couldn't write down all the words he used! There are studies that tie in sign language as infants to faster language development and ease of learning multiple languages (he's in his 3rd or 4th year of Spanish), and I believe this all completely compliments and reinforces this information you just shared in your blog. Report
Apparently for my husband, by the time he was 1 year old and his dad wanted to teach him the alphabet by cue cards, he already knew them by heart (his mom loved to park him in front of the TV when sesame st was on. Report
When my son was a baby, I very rarely used "baby talk"...maybe when I was playing with him...but I actually spoke to him like he understood what I was saying. I read to him a lot and sang to him and started teaching him sign language (my mom is deaf). My son started reading when he was 4 yrs old and he hasn't stopped yet (he's 19 now).

I don't really recall much of his early speech patterns. I do believe he was able to speak in full sentences at an early age. I'll never forget when he went to preschool and told some of the children, "Actually, Santa Claus is a fictional character." I had a LOT of parents mad at me! LOL! Report
Great article. They smile when they hear certain words as well. Report
This makes a lot of sense to me. My little 2 yr old granddaughter lives with me and I am amazed at how articulate and well spoken she is. I always get asked if she is really just two years old. She speaks full sentences and holds a conversation. Her speech isn't hard to understand and she knows and uses words correctly. The only thing I can think of for her advanced language skills is that we have always treated her as if she could understand what we were saying...and we never baby talk to her. Report
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