Researchers Find Meaning in Baby Babbling

ByABC News via via logo

Oct. 30, 2002 -- If you hear your baby say "ba-ba-ba" or "da-da-da," or something similarly cute but meaningless, don't just dismiss it as baby babble.

Researchers believe your baby may be trying to tell you something.

Initially, scientists thought that babies moved their mouths in the same way that they waved their hands or their feet, and that the sounds that came out was just random gibberish. But when they began studying babies in the act of babbling, they found that their 10 subjects — all babies between the ages of 5 months to 1-year-old — were making an early attempt at language.

"Now we know that it's much more related to language," Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, a Dartmouth College professor who led the baby babble study, told Good Morning America. "In fact, when the baby's babbling, they're hard at work."

For many years, scientists have debated whether humans learn language as they grow, through practice and watching others, or if they have an innate capacity for language. The new research supports the latter theory, establishing a link between baby babbling and the language processing centers in the brain.

Petitto led a team of researchers who studied videotapes of five babies from English-speaking families, and five from French-speaking families. Two independent coders used a "laterality index" to calculate the openings of the babies' mouths during periods of babbles (sounds with consonant-vowel content or repetition, like ba-ba-ba), non-babbles (vocalizations without consonant-vowel content or repetition) and smiles.

A Left Brain Function?

They found that babies babble more out of the right side of their mouth, as compared to the left. The left side of the brain controls the movement of the right side of the body — and the right side of the brain controls the left side.

The left side of the brain is also believed to control language. In this case, the baby researchers say, that the language emerging from the right side of the baby's mouth is babbling that means something.

"Babbling are those little bite-sized nuggets that they make that contain a consonant and a vowel," Petitto said. "Like ba-ba-ba or da-da-da. When they do that, they're absolutely trying to put together the sounds that make up the words of our language."

If a baby is making those linguistic babble sounds, and an adult repeats it back, it is satisfying to the baby, who may smile and repeat the "ba-ba-ba" or whatever sound he was making, mimicking the adult's mouth movements.

Babies Like Feedback

Still, not every baby babble necessarily has meaning.

"There will be sounds that they just make because they feel it and it feels nice," Petitto said. "They like that feedback."

To separate the two, check out which side of the mouth the movements are coming from. When it is "linguistic and babbling," there's a greater mouth opening on the right side, she said. When babies are just opening up their mouths and crying or wailing, the blast of sound emerges from a full mouth.

But if parents can engage the baby in a back and forth of babble-type sounds, it may be their first verbal exchange, of sorts, with their child.

"I would grab it and go with it," Petitto said. "Because then the baby's really excited and on its way to learning language."

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