Scientists Seek a Better Understanding of How Babies Learn

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.  I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  On our program this week, we discuss scientific findings about how intelligence develops in babies.

Not long ago, many people believed that babies only wanted food and to be kept warm and dry.  Some people thought babies were not able to learn things until they were five or six months old.

Yet doctors in the United States say babies begin learning on their first day of life. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is a federal government agency.  Its goal is to identify which experiences can influence healthy development in human beings.

Research scientists at the institute note that babies are strongly influenced by their environment.  They say a baby will smile if her mother does something the baby likes.  A baby learns to get the best care possible by smiling to please her mother or other caregiver.  This is how babies learn to connect and communicate with other human beings.

The American researchers say this ability to learn exists in a baby even before birth.  They say newborn babies can recognize and understand sounds they heard while they were still developing in their mothers.

One study shows that babies can learn before they are born.  The researchers placed a tape recorder on the stomach of a pregnant woman.  Then, they played a recording of a short story.

On the day the baby was born, the researchers attempted to find if he knew the sounds of the story repeated while in his mother.  They did this by placing a device in the mouth of the newborn baby.

The baby would hear the story if he moved his mouth one way.  If the baby moved his mouth the other way, he would hear a different story.  The researchers say the baby clearly liked the story he heard before he was born.  They say the baby would move his mouth so he could hear the story again and again.

Many experts say the first years of a child's life are important for all later development.  An American study shows how mothers can strongly influence social development and language skills in their children.

The study involved more than one thousand two hundred mothers and children. Researchers studied the children from the age of one month to three years.  They observed the mothers playing with their children four times during this period.

The researchers attempted to measure the sensitivity of the mothers.  The women were considered sensitive if they supported their children's activities and did not interfere unnecessarily.  They tested the children for thinking and language development when they were three years old.  Also, the researchers observed the women for signs of depression.

The children of depressed women did not do as well on tests as the children of women who did not suffer from depression.  The children of depressed women did poorly on tests of language skills and understanding what they hear.

These children also were less cooperative and had more problems dealing with other people.  The researchers noted that the sensitivity of the mothers was important to the general health of their children.  Children did better when their mothers were caring, even when the women suffered from depression.

Another study suggests that low-birth weight babies with no evidence of disability may be more likely than other children to have physical and mental problems.

American researchers studied nearly five hundred boys and girls.  They were born in, or admitted to, one of three hospitals in New Jersey between nineteen eighty-four and nineteen eighty-seven.  At birth, each child weighed less than two thousand grams.

The boys and girls had an average age of sixteen years at the time of the study.  They were asked to complete intelligence and motor skill tests in their homes.  Their test results were compared with those of other children their age.

The study found that the young people with low birth weight often had more problems with motor skills than others.  A motor skill is a skill that requires a living thing to use its skeletal muscles effectively.  Motor problems were more common among males, those with injured nerve tissue in the brain, and those who had been connected to oxygen supplies for days as a baby.

The first three years of a child's life is the most intensive period of language and speech development.  This is the time when the brain is developing.  Language and communication skills are believed to develop best in an environment that is rich with sounds and sights.  Also, the child should repeatedly hear the speech and language of other people.

America's National Institutes of Health says evidence suggests there are important periods of speech and language development in children.  This means the brain is best able to learn a language during this period.  Officials say the ability to learn a language will be more difficult if these periods pass without early contact with a language.

The first signs of communication happen during the first few days of life when a baby learns that crying will bring food and attention.  Research shows that most children recognize the general sounds of their native language by six months of age.  At that time, a baby also usually begins to make sounds.  These sounds become a kind of nonsense speech over time.

By the end of the first year, most children are able to say a few simple words.  But they may not understand the meaning of their words.  By eighteen months of age, most children can say eight to ten words.  By two years, most children are able to form simple statements, or sentences.  By ages three, four and five, the number of words a child can understand quickly increases.  It is at this age that children begin to understand the rules of language.

A long-term American study shows the effect of early education on future learning abilities.  The study followed more than one thousand  three hundred children from birth through the ages of ten or eleven years.  It found that children who received higher quality care before starting school had better language skills by those ages than children who had lower quality care.

The study is known as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.  It is said to be the largest, longest lasting and most complete study of child care in the United States.

The children included in the study were born around nineteen ninety-one in ten areas of the country.  Researchers examined the quality and amount of child care the children received until they were fifty-four months old.  Child care included any care provided by people other than the child's mother that lasted at least ten hours a week.  This included any care given by fathers or other family members.

The researchers then examined each child's performance in school and social development.  They also measured other influences, such as the quality of classroom education and parenting.

Recently, the researchers examined whether the developmental qualities that had been observed in young children were still present a few years later.  They found that the older children who had received higher quality child care continued to show better ability in measures of language skills.

The children's understanding was observed using a method which shows their ability to name objects shown in a series of pictures.  The study confirmed a link between high quality child care and better test results continued as the children grew older.  It also found that the children's ability was not dependent on the amount of time they had spent in child care.

Interestingly, children who had been in child care before entering school were also more likely to have shown aggression or disobedience in their early school years.  However, the researchers said the children's behavior was considered normal.

James Griffith was the science officer for the study.  He says the findings add to the growing research that shows the quality and kind of child care a person experiences early in life can have lasting effects.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written and produced by Brianna Blake.  I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Bob Doughty.  Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

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