Look who's listening: Babies recognise words at just three days old, study reveals

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

New research has revealed that babies have the innate ability to recognise words, even in their very first days of life.

The study - which was published in Developmental Science by scientists from four European universities - set out to discover how early babies begin to recognise certain words from a continuous stream of language.

The babies were familiarised with a three-minute audio clip in the first days of life, in which four meaningless words were embedded in continuous speech. 

The researchers employed Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, a technique which works by shining light into the brain. It revealed which areas showed activity when the 3-day old babies began to recognise the hidden words.

Dr Perrine Brusini of the University of Liverpool said in a statement, "We then had the infants listen to individual words and found that their brains responded differently to the words that they heard than to slightly different words."

The team of researchers say it's a "key first step in language acquisition," identifying two key mechanisms that the babies used to segment the words. An article published by University of Manchester describes them and their functions.

"One of the mechanisms discovered by the team is known as prosody - the melody of language, which allow us to recognise when a word starts and stops. And another they call the statistics of language, which describes how we compute the frequency of when sounds in a word come together."

Researcher Dr Alissa Ferry from The University of Manchester explained why the findings are significant in terms of how parents interact with their babies. 

"We think this study highlights how sentient newborn babies really are and how much information they are absorbing. That's quite important for new parents and gives them some insight into how their baby is listening to them."

Dr Ana Flò of Neurospin added, "Language in incredibly complicated and this study is about understanding how infants try to make sense of it when they first hear it. We often think of language as being made up of words, but words often blur together when we talk. So one of the first steps to learn language is to pick out the words. Our study shows that at just 3 days old, without understanding what it means, they are able pick out individual words from speech. And we have identified two important tools that we are almost certainly born with, that gives them the ability to do this."

So keep talking to those babies the minute they are born. Humans are wired for language learning from the very beginning of life, and they understand much more than you would imagine.

The study was a collaboration between scientists at SISSA in Italy, the Neurospin Centre in France, the University of Liverpool and The University of Manchester and funded by the European Research Council.