Families & the Community

Babies Read Lips While Learning to Speak, Researchers Find

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 18, 2012 1 min read
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Good morning, early childhood folks. My name is Lesli Maxwell and starting today, I’ll be surfacing here a few times a week, along with my colleague Julie Rasicot, to bring you news and analysis from the world of early childhood education. We’ll aim to inform and enlighten you, and, perhaps even entertain you from time to time.

To kick things off, let’s dedicate this post to our littlest learners: babies! A fascinating new study published online yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that babbling babies—starting as early as four months old—pay close attention to the mouths of adult speakers. The little ones are studying our mouths, say the researchers, to figure out how to shape their own to make a particular sound.

As the baby babble gives way to actual syllables and first words, the little ones stop studying lips and return their gaze to adult eyes, say psychologist David Lewkowicz and psychology graduate student Amy Hansen-Tift, both of Florida Atlantic University.

The researchers tested 179 infants from English-speaking families who were 4, 6, 8 or 12 months old and used special devices to track where the babies looked when they were shown a video of a female English speaker and a female Spanish speaker. The 4-month-old babies tended to look into the eyes of both speakers, but those who ranged from 6 months old to 10 months, focused on the mouths of both English and Spanish speakers, they found.

The babies who were closer to 12 months old and were budding talkers, spent more time looking into the eyes of the English speaker, but continued to focus on the lips of the woman speaking the unfamiliar language of Spanish just like the younger infants. Researchers said those babies still needed to study the mouth of the speaker of the unfamiliar language to figure out how to make those sounds.

This study seems to underscore, once again, the importance of parents talking, talking, talking to our little ones.

When I get home tonight, I’ll be paying extra close attention to my noisy 8-month-old son. Will he be watching my mouth as we play our usual game of “uh oh” when he drops his spoon and sippy cup?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.