How babies learn language is still not fully understood, but researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) are working to unravel the mechanisms of language acquisition. Their study finds that infants’ gaze shifting—adjusting visual attention in response to the environment—is linked to their ability to learn new language sounds. The results suggest that social skills play a critical role in infant language acquisition.
The study is built upon the research team’s previous work, which demonstrated that gaze shifting is linked to a larger vocabulary in preschoolers. The researchers hypothesized that eye gaze could also be important for infants learning a new language. To test this theory, the researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to test 17 infants’ response to speech sounds of a new language before being exposed to the language and after a series of language lessons. The 9.5-month-old infants in the study received 12 15-minute Spanish lessons with a tutor over the course of four weeks. The tutor read books, talked, and played with toys while speaking Spanish. During the lessons, the researchers counted how often infants shifted their gaze between the tutor and the toys.
Infants who engaged in the most gaze shifting during tutoring had the most pronounced brain response to Spanish language sounds. Rechele Brooks, research assistant professor at I-LABS, explains, “Our findings show that young babies’ social engagement contributes to their own language learning—they’re not just passive listeners of language. They’re paying attention, and showing parents they’re ready to learn when they’re looking back and forth. That’s when the most learning happens.”
The study offers evidence that social skills are important for language acquisition. The findings also indicate that infants learn language best by interacting with people.
This research is published in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology.
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