Babies have a certain genius when it comes to learning language, and it turns out that some of the pieces of language acquisition are already in place at birth. In particular, babies seem to have brains that react differently to speech than to other sounds, even other forms of communication.

To learn more about how babies perceive speech, an international group of researchers studied how newborn babies’ brains responded to three different languages.

In the study, newborns listened to recordings of three different languages: English, Spanish, and a whistled language called Silbo Gomero.

All the babies had English-speaking parents, so English was the language they’d heard in the womb while Spanish was an unfamiliar language. Silbo Gomero, which is a whistled form of Spanish in which spoken sounds are replaced with whistled sounds, was used as an example of a non-spoken language.

It turned out that the babies’ brains responded in a distinctive way to both English and Spanish. Hearing these languages tended to activate areas of the brain associated with language, suggesting that the babies were already processing speech as something special.

On the other hand, hearing Silbo Gomero didn’t activate these parts of the babies’ brains, indicating that babies who haven’t been exposed to Silbo Gomero in utero see it as more of a general sound than a language.

It appears, then, that by the time babies are born, their brains are already specialized for processing speech. They recognize speech as something special and respond to it in a unique way – not just compared to other sounds, but compared to non-spoken languages like the whistled language Silbo Gomero.

This specialization, in turn, means that from birth, babies are prepared for the task of learning language from the speech they hear around them. They are literally born ready.

Image: Flickr/John Finn