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08th Mar 2024

Why reading and singing to your baby can help them learn language

Anna Martin

language skills

Do you sing or read to your baby?

Well, even though you might not have intended for it to happen, you may have been helping them develop their language skills.

According to researchers in Trinity College and the University of Cambridge, sing-song speech plays a vital role in their learning.

The study suggests that rhythmic information, specifically the modulation of tone observed in nursery rhymes or songs, is instrumental in the process, and it’s not hard to see why.

From simple sing-song rhythms present in the alphabet to songs used when learning a foreign language, it’s easy to see why the simple tune can help to guide them from one word to another, helping them to remember for years to come.

language skills
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The researchers said that the findings, which have been published in the journal Nature Communications, challenge the view that phonetic information is the key to language learning.

They said it also suggests that dyslexia and developmental language disorder may be associated with rhythm perception rather than difficulties with processing phonetic information.

For the study, researchers recorded patterns of electrical brain activity in 50 infants at four, seven and eleven months old as they watched a video of a teacher singing 18 nursery rhymes to a baby.

These low-frequency bands of brainwaves were fed through a special algorithm, which produced a ‘read out’ of the phonological information (the relationship between speech sounds) that was being encoded.

language skills
Credit: Getty

The researchers found that phonetic encoding in babies emerged gradually over the first year of life, beginning with labial sounds (e.g. d for “daddy”) and nasal sounds (e.g. m for “mummy”), with the ‘read out’ progressively looking more like that of adults. 

“Our research shows that the individual sounds of speech are not processed reliably until around seven months, even though most infants can recognise familiar words like ‘bottle’ by this point,” said Cambridge neuroscientist, Professor Usha Goswami.

“From then individual speech sounds are still added in very slowly – too slowly to form the basis of language.”

She said rhythm is a universal aspect of every language where all babies “are exposed to … a strong beat structure with a strong syllable twice a second”, adding: “We’re biologically programmed to emphasise this when speaking to babies.”

language skills
Credit: Getty

Professor Giovanni Di Liberto, a cognitive and computer scientist in Trinity’s School of Computer Science and Statistics, and a researcher at the ADAPT Centre, said: “This is the first evidence we have of how the brain encoding of phonetic information in continuous speech changes over time.

“We believe parents should therefore talk and sing to their babies as much as possible or read nursery rhymes because this will help them learn.”