a woman holding a smiling babyTo learn a language, babies must discern which sounds are meaningful, but how do they do it? A study from Purdue University investigated one aspect of how infants learn language: touch. They found that when a baby is touched at the same time he or she hears a speech sound, the baby learns to recognize that sound as meaningful. This study is the first to examine how touch affects language acquisition.

To test touch’s impact, the researchers gathered 48 English-learning four-month-olds and their parents at Purdue’s Infant Speech Lab. The researchers conducted two similar experiments. For each, the infants sat on their parent’s lap and listened to a pre-recorded stream of nonsense speech sounds. In the first experiment, the experimenters touched the baby’s knee each of the 24 times the nonsense word “dobita” played in the recording. The experimenter touched the baby’s knee during one or two of 24 instances of the nonsense word “lepoga.” In the second experiment, the experimenter touched his own eyebrow or chin instead of the baby’s when certain speech sounds played.

After the experiments, the researchers measured the babies’ language preferences. Almost all of the babies demonstrated that they could identify the sound “dobita,” which had been reinforced by touch, from the continuous speech stream. The babies did not develop any speech preferences during the second experiment.

The findings suggest that touching infants helps infants identify which segments of speech have meaning.

“We found that infants treat touches as if they are related to what they hear and thus these touches could have an impact on their world learning. We think of touch as conveying affection, but our recent research shows that infants can relate touches to their incoming speech signal,” stated Amanda Seidl, associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences.

This research is published in the journal Developmental Science.

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