Monitoring a baby’s speech and language patterns can yield important insights about the child’s possible developmental trajectory. Although some children simply acquire speech more slowly than others, delayed speech or atypical development of verbal skills may be signs of learning disabilities, hearing problems, language impairment, auditory processing problems or autism. There is new research that suggests that very early interventions can boost a baby’s auditory system, in the hopes that this will lead to accelerated speech and language development.
Can We Intervene? New Insights Into Language Development in Infants
Speech and language is an incredibly complicated process that requires us to distinguish auditory patterns only a few milliseconds in length. This allows us to understand individual speech sounds (e.g., “bay,” “bee”) and put them together into more complicated words (“baby”). Very early on, an infant makes brain maps of the speech sounds of his/her language. These maps make it easier to piece sounds together to understand spoken language in a fast, effortless way.
In infants, early exposure to certain sounds seems to help their brains to more effectively process auditory information. That is, hearing certain sounds may change brain pathways, making an “acoustic map” for the building blocks of speech. A recent study led by April Benasich, a researcher at Rutgers University, sought to find whether early intervention could improve this acoustic mapping ability.
During the study, 4-month-old babies were presented with tones while hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which records electrical activity from different brain regions. The babies were divided into two groups: an “active engagement” group that was rewarded for successfully discriminating between two sounds, and a “passive engagement” group that heard the same sounds but did not receive a reward. The researchers hypothesized that active engagement would encourage babies to pay attention to important sounds in the environment.
All of the babies received six weeks of active or passive auditory training. The parents were asked to bring them back at 7 months of age to see whether the babies who received active training had more well-developed acoustic maps. They found that from 4 to 7 months of age, all of the babies showed better acoustic processing. However, those in the active engagement condition got an additional boost. These babies were faster and more accurate at detecting sound differences. Additionally, they showed differences in brain waves associated with acoustic maps.
Implications of the Research
This research suggests that very early interventions may significantly change the brain patterns and acoustic maps of developing infants. This is crucial, because early sound discrimination lays the foundation for speech and language development throughout childhood. Dr. Benasich has not investigated whether the active engagement intervention continues to boost sound discrimination in children over 7 months of age. However, other scientific evidence suggests that children who go on to develop reading disabilities, language impairments or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may exhibit early deficits in auditory abilities. Thus, it is possible that early interventions that boost auditory processing may support speech and language development and in turn, prevent the onset of some learning problems. More research is needed to develop the links between early auditory interventions and later academic outcomes.