Babies' brains show that social skills linked to second language learning

  Babies learn language best by interacting with people rather than passively through a video or audio recording. But it's been unclear what aspects of social interactions make them so important for learning.

Now findings by researchers at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) demonstrate for the first time that an early social behavior called gaze shifting is linked to infants' ability to learn new language sounds.

"Our study provides evidence that infants' social skills play a role in cracking the code of the new language," said co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS.

"We found that the degree to which infants visually tracked the tutors and the toys they held was linked to brain measures of infant learning, showing that social behaviors give helpful information to babies in a complex natural language learning situation," Kuhl said.

Gaze shifting, when a baby makes eye contact and then looks at the same object that the other person is looking at, is one of the earliest social skills that babies show.

"These moments of shared visual attention develop as babies interact with their parents, and they change the baby's brain," said co-author Rechele Brooks, research assistant professor at I-LABS and an expert in how infants use their eyes to communicate.

"Our findings show that young babies' social engagement contributes to their own language learning – they're not just passive listeners of language. They're paying attention, and showing parents they're ready to learn when they're looking back and forth. That's when the most learning happens," Brooks said.

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See a video example of gaze shifting:

The study was conducted at I-LABS with funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. The lead author of the paper is Barbara Conboy of the University of Redlands, who did the research as a postdoctoral fellow at I-LABS. Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS, is also a co-author.