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How Eye Contact Helps Babies Learn Language

Professor Victoria Leong and colleagues set out to get a better understanding of how interactions with parents help babies form these important connections in the brain

  • How Eye Contact Helps Babies Learn Language

If an adult wants to learn a new language, they will need to rely on the attention, concentration and communication skills they’ve spent a lifetime building up. So why are babies, who haven’t had the chance to develop these skills yet, so much better at learning a new language than adults?

To a newborn, the world is a rush of sights and sounds – an overload of information. But then the world gradually comes into focus. Babies soon learn to recognise faces and voices, and start to make sense of the world around them. 

Consider the way we learn language. When we hear language, our brain decodes the continuous noise into discrete phrases, words and syllables. This process is improved by good attention and concentration skills.

But if babies, whom we know to have poor concentration skills, can lock down these phrases better than adults, maybe another skill is at work here.

A meeting of minds

Babies are much better than adults at learning and identifying patterns by letting extraneous information ‘wash over’ them. We know that most learning at this age is actually socialised; it’s happening with other people, most often a parent.

So how might a quite literal meeting of minds – the concurrent brain activities of a baby and their parent – influence this process?

With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, my colleagues and I set out to get a better understanding of how interactions with parents help babies form these important connections in the brain.

Over two experiments, we scanned the brains of 36 babies whilst they were interacting with a friendly female adult.

In the first experiment, we examined the infants’ brainwaves as they watched a video of an adult as she sang nursery rhymes.

The video began with the adult – whose brainwave patterns had already been recorded –singing nursery rhymes whilst looking directly at the infant. Still singing, she then she looked away.

Finally, she turned her head but maintained eye contact with the infant. As anticipated, we found that the infants’ brainwaves were more synchronised to the adults’ when they shared eye contact.

In the second experiment, the adult was in the room with the infant, and we monitored their brainwaves live.

Following the same sequence, when mutual eye contact was established this time around, the infant and the adult became even more synchronised to each other’s brain activity. This occurred even though the adult could see the infant at all times, and the infant was equally interested in looking at the adult even when she looked away.

This shows that whilst brainwave synchronisation is improved by seeing a face and finding something interesting, sharing an intention to communicate enhances this connection even further.

Synchronising communication

To measure infants’ intention to communicate, we measured how many ‘vocalisations’ infants made to the adult. As predicted, when the adult made direct eye contact, infants made a greater effort to communicate by making more ‘vocalisations’. Individual infants who made longer vocalisations also had higher brainwave synchrony with the adult.

When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signalling their availability and intention to communicate with each other. We found that both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync with their partner.

This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronising when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.

Using the words of my colleague Dr Sam Wass to summarise our findings:

“We don’t know what it is, yet, that causes this synchronous brain activity. We’re certainly not claiming to have discovered telepathy! In this study, we were looking at whether infants can synchronise their brains to someone else, just as adults can. […] Our findings suggested eye gaze and vocalisations may both, somehow, play a role. But the brain synchrony we were observing was at such high time-scales – of three to nine oscillations per second – that we still need to figure out how exactly eye gaze and vocalisations create it.”

Professor Victoria Leong (Baby-LINC lab, University of Cambridge) will be presenting her research on how infants are attuned to baby talk and nursery rhymes at the National Literacy Trust’s annual Talk to Your Baby conference in London on 19 March 2018. Professor Leong joins a host of internationally renowned experts in early language development who will be presenting at the conference.

For 15 years, Talk To Your Baby has brought together the leading experts in early language and communication development to share the latest research, practice and policy with early years professionals in the UK. Book your place at Talk To Your Baby 2018 by visiting literacytrust.org.uk/ttyb, emailing conferences@literacytrust.org.uk or calling 020 7820 6258.

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