Why `papa’, `mommy’, `daddy’ are a baby’s first words

August 27th, 2008 - 10:07 am ICT by IANS  

Toronto, Aug 27 (IAS) A new Canadian study shows why “papa”, “daddy” and “mommy” are the only first words new-born babies understand.The study, conducted by Judit Gervain of Vancouver’s University of British Columbia and her team, says that babies are born with an innate ability to recognize these words. It concludes that the human brain is hard-wired to recognize certain repetition patterns and decipher languages.

Using the latest optical brain imaging techniques, Gervain and her team of researchers from Italy and Chile documented brain activities of 22 newborns (2-3 days old) when exposed to recordings of made-up words.

The researchers mixed words that end in repeating syllables - such as “mubaba” and “penana” - with words without repetition - such as “mubage” and “penaku.”

They found increased brain activities in the temporal and left frontal areas of the newborns’ brain whenever the repetitious words were played. Words with non-adjacent repetitions (”bamuba” or “napena”) elicited no distinctive responses from the brain.

“We conducted this study in Italy where we picked up 44 infants and divided them into two groups to carry out two sets of experiments. We exposed them to about 22 minutes of recordings of the above-mentioned words,” Gervain told IANS on phone from Vancouver.

“While they were exposed to the recordings, we monitored the oxygen levels in blood in their brain areas. We found that when the babies heard the words `papa’, `daddy’, and `mommy’, the blood oxygen level in certain brain areas went up. It showed those brain areas became active on hearing these words (papa, mommy), and thus needed more oxygen,” said Gervain.

The language centre of most right-handed adults is located on the left side of the brain, she said. “This is consistent with our finding with new born babies and supports our belief humans are born with abilities that allow us to perceive and learn our mother tongue systematically and efficiently.”

She said, “It’s probably no coincidence that many languages around the world have repetitious syllables in their ‘child words’ - baby and daddy in English, papa in Italian and tata (grandpa) in Hungarian, for example.”

This is one of the first studies on a newborn infant’s innate ability to decipher structural patterns in language.

The study has been published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science’s online Early Edition.

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