From Mother Goose to Dr Seuss, Babies Learn Language Best Through Rhyming, Not Phonetics

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From Mother Goose to Dr Seuss, Babies Learn Language Best Through Rhyming, Not Phonetics


Dec 29, 2023 7:01 AM – 1071 words

Caitriona Maria | Wealth of Geeks

Parents of newborns should consider warming up their vocal cords and brushing up on their lullabies. A recent study by University of Cambridge scientists showed that infants learn language more effectively through songs and nursery rhymes.


According to researchers at the BabyRhythm project, young babies internalize language more successfully through hearing rhythmic information. By learning these patterns, babies can better understand the boundaries between words. They can identify the point at which one word ends and another begins.


These latest findings represent a shift from linguists who believe babies learn language by processing phonetic information.


Prevailing Ideas About Language Acquisition


Researchers who study early language development prefer the term “language acquisition” over “language learning.” Children acquire a language in the same way that they begin to walk: by instinct. Without any physical or mental impairment, children will find ways to communicate with the society surrounding them. Communication is a biological imperative for human beings.


Language acquisition is presumed to be a process that occurs naturally. Unlike reading, which is a skill that must be taught, language acquisition happens without any plan or intent. The only prerequisites are simple. First, the child must have access to a language. Second, they possess the cognitive abilities to acquire it.


Until recently, most prevailing theories considered phonetic information to be the building blocks of language acquisition. Phonetic information is the smallest unit or element of sound in a speech. In writing, it is typically represented by a letter of the alphabet.


In their first three years of life, children acquire these sounds and rapidly develop the ability to string them together to make words. Then, they associate these words with meanings and can organize them into sentences.


How does this extraordinary cognitive development happen so quickly? Previous research identified the six stages of language acquisition:


1. Prelinguistic Stage (0-6 months)


Also known as the cooing stage, babies make vowel-like sounds in response to another person’s smiling or talking. They appear to engage by turning their heads and looking for eye contact.


2. Babbling Stage (6-8 months)


At this point, infants are capable of producing short syllables. These are usually simple consonant-vowel combinations, such as ‘Ma-ma-ma’ and ‘Da-da-da.’ Children mix and match syllables as they progress, a type of babbling known as variegated babbling.


3. Holophrastic Stage (9-18 months)


“Holophrastic” means a complete, undivided phrase. During this language acquisition phase, babies can produce single words. However, a simple word in baby talk can convey the meaning of a complete sentence.


4. Two-Word Stage (18-24 months)


Children develop the ability to form two-word mini sentences. To structure a sentence, no matter how small, a child must know the word’s meaning and how to combine it with others.


5. Telegraphic Stage (24-30 months)


The name “Telegraphic” refers to the telegraph writing style. These were short, direct missives that often sacrificed pronouns, prepositions, and other function words to communicate information cheaply and efficiently. At this stage, toddlers speak in brief, choppy phrases. For example, a child would say, “Want go home.”


6. Beyond Telegraphic Stage (30+ months)


Children are capable of multi-word phrases. Not only have they increased their vocabulary exponentially, but they have also begun to understand how words can be used in a complex sentence structure.


How Does Rhyming Affect Language Acquisition?


For the first time, researchers were able to study how an infant’s brain processes phonetic information throughout their first year of life. The resulting paper, published early this December, revealed the surprising role that nursery songs and other rhyming tunes play during the language acquisition process.


“We believe that speech rhythm information is the hidden glue underpinning the development of a well-functioning language system,” Dr Usha Goswami, co-author and Director for the Centre for Neuroscience in Education (CNE) at the University of Cambridge, told


In contrast with previous theories, this investigation found that infants do not begin successfully encoding phonetic information until after seven months old. Even when babies begin talking, approximately at 11 months old, this capacity is still not well developed.


However, an infant’s ability improves when they receive that information through a rhyming scheme. For this study, researchers from Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin observed the electrical brain activity of a group of infants.


First, the babies watched a video of an elementary school teacher singing nursery rhymes. Afterward, a special computer algorithm would produce a recording of the information registered in children’s minds for scientists to “read.” What they saw gave researchers reason to believe that rhyming schemes help infants learn language more effectively.


“Infants can use rhythmic information like a scaffold or skeleton to add phonetic information on to,” explains Dr Goswami. “For example, they might learn that the rhythm pattern of English words is typically strong-weak, as in ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy,’ with the stress on the first syllable. They can use this rhythm pattern to guess where one word ends and another begins when listening to natural speech.”


This specific publication falls under the umbrella of the BabyRhythm project, an initiative led by Dr. Goswami at the CNE BabyLab and funded by the European Research Council. The BabyRhythm project studies how infants process rhythm across all senses, intending to improve language learning for kids across all languages.


“What this all means is that long before babies show signs of speaking or even understanding words, their brains are preparing for language,” enthused co-author Áine Ní Choisdealbh in a blog post earlier this year. “How the developing brain ‘locks on’ to rhythms in speech seems to have implications for language development.”


“We hope that in the future, the link between brain rhythms and speech rhythms might provide a pathway to intervene and help children at risk of dyslexia or other language difficulties at the earliest stages of development,” Choisdealbh writes.


This article was produced by TPR Teaching and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Written by: thevisionary

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