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Sunday, February 15, 1998 Published at 01:13 GMT


Babies baffled by blah blah babble
image: [ Babies can recognise own name at five months ]
Babies can recognise own name at five months

Infants recognise only one word by the time they are five months old and that is their own name.

Everything else, scientists say, sounds like "blah blah blah."

But researchers added that talking to babies in the womb makes the unborn child aware of a rich stream of vocal sounds, the crucial building blocks of language.

By the time a typical infant reaches its first birthday, its vocabulary will have expanded to about 36 words.

But even if most of the adult conversation means nothing to a baby, the child can distinguish between pitches, resonances, rhythms and forces of speech.

John Locke, speech science professor at England's University of Sheffield, says children begin to pick up on the rhythms of speech long before they are born.

"Newborns prefer their mother's way of speaking," he said.

"Not because it distinguishes her language from other languages, but because it distinguishes her from other people," he said in a paper he is presenting to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

[ image: Pregnancy: talking to child may help]
Pregnancy: talking to child may help
"If the mother speaks German prenatally, the infant's postnatal preference will be for Germanic-sounding people."

Professor Locke is among a group of scientists who disagree with world famous linguist Noam Chomsky.

Mr Chomsky says that language development is genetically predetermined and operates independent of experience.

But Professor Locke and others instead contend language and speech evolved through separate human functions, largely tied to eating.

Professor Locke takes the evolutionary argument further.

He suggests that early peoples fed themselves not so much by the act of hunting and gathering food but by how well they interpreted and responded to the intentions of their relatives and neighbours.

"How well they eat is determined, to some degree, by how well they socialise," he says.

"Those who were good at these things were more likely to survive and pass on their genes, leaving us, their grateful progeny, with neural systems that are specialised for personal information."

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