Is Babbling the Sound of Babies Learning?

Several new research studies examine early language development in babies. The first three years of life are a critical period for language development: a child’s brain is developing rapidly and is at its most receptive to new information. Research shows that the amount and quality of speech that parents use with their child are among the strongest influences on his language skills, especially before age three. 

In one recent study, Professor Michael H. Goldstein of Cornell University looked at the relationship between babbling and an infant’s ability to learn new information. In the study, researchers observed the interaction between parents and their infants and find that babies appear to learn more and more quickly when parents respond directly to the baby’s babble.

Babbling as a moment of learning

“In that moment of babbling, babies seem to be primed to take in more information,” Dr. Goldstein said. “It’s about creating a social interaction where now you can learn new things.”

The study argues that when babies are engaging in babble, they are in a cognitive state of focused attention, a readiness to learn language. They are more likely to learn words when parents respond to babble by naming objects at hand.

“We think that babies tend to emit babbles when they’re in a state where they’re ready to learn new information, they’re aroused, they’re interested,” Professor Goldstein said. “When babies are interested in something, they tend to do a furrowed brow," he continued; parents should understand that babble may be “an acoustic version of furrowing one’s brow.”

If a baby isn’t babbling normally, there could be several factors that may be hindering them, they may not be hearing enough adult speech, or they may have a hearing or processing problem. These issues are all responsive to intervention and by talking more to babies, and getting auditory screenings early to identify any hearing problems (link here to relevant GMM segments?).

Babble is important for babies for many reasons. It is increasingly being understood as a precursor to speech. It also signals both cognitive and social emotional development, and can help identify developmental delays.  

Dr. Kimbrough Oller, a professor of audiology and speech-language pathology at the University of Memphis, finds that some new research may have some influential findings. Recent studies are analyzing the sounds that babies make in the first half-year of life. “These sounds are foundations of later language,” he said, “and they figure in all kinds of social interactions and play between parents and babies.”


Klass, Perri.  (2010, October 11). Understanding ‘Ba Ba Ba’ as a Key to Development. The New York Times.