Can nursery rhymes help babies learn language? New study explains why they can

Lifestyle

It’s no secret that kids and (most) parents love nursery rhymes that are as old as time.

They can keep children of all ages entertained, help get them through meals without much fuss and even fall asleep.

But there’s new research that suggests singing to your baby in the first few months of their life could also be crucial in learning language.

Speaking in a rhythmic speech with varying tones was found to be more effective in helping the infant brain process speech in the initial months of their life than listening to the sounds of alphabets, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications on Dec. 1.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin studied the electrical brain activity of 50 infants as they listened to 18 different nursery rhymes at four, seven and 11 months old.

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They found that at four months, infants were responding to the nursery rhymes, but their response was weakest to phonemes, which are individual speech sounds like ‘aah,’ ‘buh’ and ‘kuh.’

In fact, responses to individual syllables only started emerging from the age of seven months.

“The reason why we use nursery rhymes is because that is the optimal way for babies to detect and associate sounds with language, so we are teaching them how to speak,” said Giovanni Di Liberto, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.


Click to play video: 'Is learning a 2nd language right for your child?'


Is learning a 2nd language right for your child?


Di Liberto said their study could pinpoint for the first time a neural mechanism in the brain that is there from birth that “explains why nursery rhymes are so important” in the linguistic learning process of a child.

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“The brain has these rhythms that are important, fundamental for learning language since the very start,” he told Global News in an interview Wednesday.

The sing-song philosophy is one many children’s TV shows and YouTubers, like Ms. Rachel, use, much to the delight of the kids and their parents.

Di Liberto said their study might not come as a surprise to many parents, who naturally “baby talk” with their little ones or talk in a melodious way. But now this research further backs that popular practice, he said.

“What this tells us is that it’s not just a societal, cultural phenomenon, it’s something that is engraved in our brain.”


Click to play video: 'Baby reacts to mother’s singing'


Baby reacts to mother’s singing


There is already growing research that shows singing to a baby when it’s still in the womb can support mother-infant bonding as well as benefit speech and brain development.

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Usha Goswami, a neuroscience professor at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the Nature Communications study, said their research suggests that music therapies might be very effective for improving speech processing.

In commentary explaining her recent research sent in an email to Global News, she encouraged parents to clap the rhythms with their toddler, sing nursery rhymes like Jack and Jill together and use a bongo drum to beat out the syllable patterns or even bop to a rap song.

“Learn poems by heart and say them together out loud, change the words to make it funny but keep the beat,” she wrote in the unpublished article.

“Play skipping games to emphasize the underlying ‘beat structure’ of speech. All these activities should help the brain waves to surf the sound waves more accurately, and to come in on time.”

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