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Friday, 21 April, 2000, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
Baby babble 'key to language'
Four patterns of words common to baby babbling
By Ania Lichtarowicz of BBC Science

The sounds babies make when they talk or babble could hold the key to understanding how language developed.

According to the journal Science, two researchers from the University of Texas in the US have found that four common word patterns which are used by babies, often turn into the first actual words they ever speak.

The way we speak has developed in a certain way because of the natural movements of our mouth.

Sounds that we make most easily are produced when we move our lower jaw up and down. It is these sounds that could hold the key to the way language developed.

Between 60% and 80% of sounds made by babies all over the world are made using these natural movements.

Ma-ma, da-da, ta-ta

mother and baby
Sounds like ma-ma used in various languages
The researchers from the University of Texas found there are four patterns of words common to baby babbling.

Sounds like 'ma-ma', 'da-da', 'ba-ba' and 'ta- ta', are used very frequently in many languages and they make up the first words that young children learn when they start to speak.

"That is what babies are famous for," said John Locke, an expert in infant language and linguistics at the University of Cambridge.

"If you don't move anything else, and bunch the tongue up in the front of the mouth, which they do naturally for feeding, then they are going to get sounds like 'da-da' ... 'ta-ta' ... 'na-na' or 'ya-ya'."

"Those sounds make up the majority of sounds made by babies who babble. It just turns out that those sounds are also said more accurately by children and they are more likely to be included in the various languages of the world."

Professor Locke said babies could be a new source of data for studying how our languages were assembled thousands of years ago.

According to him it is entirely probable that early human babies produced the same sounds as modern babies and as language developed these sounds were used.

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