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Baby Babble Means Parents Are Teaching Kids Words for Objects

Speech doesn't have to be coherent to be significant.

We all know the frustration of trying to get a stubborn infant to hit the developmental milestone of saying “Dada.” We point to objects, frantically trying to impress vocabulary upon our gurgling progeny, even as we doubt whether they’re paying attention. Now, a new study has demonstrated that infants as young as nine-months-old are indeed learning when parents name objects for them—and actively participating, by structuring their babbled responses around their parents’ positive feedback.

For parents, this knowledge might come as a welcome relief: Yes, your children are learning when you name objects for them,” coauthor on the study Rachel Albert of Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania wrote in Scientific American. “With this knowledge comes the opportunity to be a more effective communication partner for your growing child.”

Prior studies have shown that parents do just about everything to get their kids to talk, including changing the timbre of their voices in consistent ways across cultures. And their efforts are not in vain. Researchers have demonstrated that one-on-one “conversation” with babbling babies gives them a serious leg up in developing their language skills later in life. But until now, it was unclear why babies babble in the first place, or precisely how their babbling leads to language.

For this new study, Albert and colleagues watched as mothers interacted with nine-month-olds, and found that infants babble strategically to elicit specific reactions from their caregivers. For instance, a baby might hold a ball and run through a battery of noises until she arrives at “ba”. Once she hits that sound, mothers tend to react excitedly because the babble sounds like “ball”. Meanwhile, the study suggests, babies are neurologically hardwired to bounce sounds off adults until they get positive feedback. Which means babbling is essentially experimental conversation.  

“What’s truly incredible about these exchanges is the level of influence babies have as actual conversation partners,” Albert writes. “They’re structuring the interaction with their parent in a way that facilitates their learning of the object’s name.”

Albert suggests parents fully engage when their infants are trying to communicate. That means putting down your phone, turning to your child’s object of interest, and having what may feel like a one-sided conversation with your babbling baby. But it’s worth it. “Responding promptly will catch children when they’re most receptive,” Albert writes. “Shared attention to the object they’re babbling at teaches children the name of that object more than hearing the correct name on its own.”

Even if your kid isn’t quite ready to say “Dada”, it sure is a step in the right direction.