Baby babble means more than just goo goo ga ga : Goats and Soda The science of baby babble is surprisingly complex. And the idea that a baby exposed to two languages will be confused? Let's see what babble researchers have to say about that.

Baby babble isn't just goo goo! And hearing 2 languages is better than one

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In English, we adults like to say babies go goo-goo ga-ga (ph). In French, though, it is areau areau, and in Mandarin, it's ya ya. So does baby babble actually sound different in different parts of the world? And what does that tell us about how babies learn to speak? NPR's Sydney Lupkin reports on how babies acquire language in our Weekly Dose of Wonder.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: A few years ago, I was on a train, seated across the table from a French woman who was traveling with her toddler. His mom and I hit it off and spoke in English for a few hours. Meanwhile, this little boy had a lot to say. I couldn't understand it, but he clearly had opinions about his books, his snacks, maybe how cool it was that his hands were attached to his arms - all in what I just assumed was French. So finally, I said to his mom, completely earnestly, so what's he saying? And she paused for a while. And then she's like, nothing. He's a baby.


LUPKIN: Well, now I have my own baby. He's babbling up a storm, and I have questions. So I called up Megha Sundara, a professor of linguistics at UCLA whose lab is unlike any lab you've ever heard of. For starters, there's a castle in it. Well, it's a sound booth, but it looks like a castle.

MEGHA SUNDARA: So the thing about sound booths is they are intimidating spaces.

LUPKIN: So her student with a background in set design built a castle around it. Now Sundara studies how babies listen before they start talking and how they eventually learn language. When babies first start babbling at around 6 months old, they all sound the same, even deaf babies. But then they start to drift.

SUNDARA: So it turns out babies are - even when they're very young - are very good at imitating the rhythm and the intonation of the language they're hearing.

LUPKIN: Sundara also studies how babies respond to hearing different languages. In bilingual households, babies switch that babbling rhythm and melody depending on what language they're hearing. But in monolingual households, they don't. She led an experiment showing that that can change, however. At the beginning of the experiment, the baby is 9 or 10 months old and can only babble in English. Then they let the baby spend time with a research assistant who speaks Spanish. It's about five hours spread over four weeks.

SUNDARA: And in these sessions, you're just reading to them, playing with them in Spanish. That's all that's happening.

LUPKIN: Then when they repeat the experiment, the baby can change its babbling to match the Spanish sounds. Babies have this special skill for picking up language thanks to something called enhanced neuroplasticity. It basically means their brains are super-adaptive. Here's Jeannette Reiff of the American Speech Language Hearing Association.

JEANNETTE REIFF: So when babies are born, they can hear and distinguish all of the sounds and all the languages in the world.

LUPKIN: Although there was once a fear that learning two languages at once would confuse babies, that's since been disproven, Reiff says. There are, of course, cognitive and social benefits to being bilingual.

REIFF: I work with many families, you know? I have this conversation a lot with them. We speak three languages in our home. Which language should we choose? And I say all three. We're not confusing. We're only increasing brain flexibility and maximizing the neuroplasticity that your baby has right now.

LUPKIN: That heightened ability to learn language lasts until they're 5, with some lingering language superpowers lasting until age 12. So while my baby isn't walking yet and insists on scooting backwards while blowing raspberries, his babble is one sign his brain is doing amazing things.


LUPKIN: Sydney Lupkin, NPR News.



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