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In a recent article in the Times newspaper, researchers claim that a baby’s first word is no accident. Rhys Blakely from Los Angeles writes, Infants silently rehearse their earliest words for many months, practising their first “mumma” or “dadda” inside their heads before finally blurting it out.

Scientists from the University of Washington say they have captured the most precise look yet of what happens inside a baby’s brain when they hear adults speaking.

The researchers discovered that the area of the brain that is used to produce speech buzzes with activity in babies aged between 7 and 12 month old when they hear speech components, and build toward babys first word.

“What we’re seeing is that the babies are practising because they want to talk back” says Patricia Kuhl, a speech psychologist. Her findings were published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr Kuhl’s team used a special machine that measures the brains magnetic field. Unlike other devices, such as an MRI machine, which requires patients to remain completely still, the MEG can deal with a moving subject, such as a wriggling baby.

The research suggests that babies behave like citizens of the world in their earliest months, reacting to the sounds of all languages equally. However, when they reach about eight months, they begin to latch on to the sound of the language of their parents, effectively ignoring foreign sounds.

The work may help to solve the riddle of how children of the world over acquire their native language in such a short time. Infants learn phonology and grammar via exposure to speech, and produce speech patterns by the age of one that can be deciphered by their parents, the researchers say a feat that has so far beaten the most advanced computers. Dr Kuhl said babies are ready to listen and ready to pay attention.

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