Your Baby is a Genius
Our co-founder Cate looks at why babies are such amazing linguists, and how we can benefit from learning languages together.
Go on, don’t be shy, mamans. Say it aloud: “My baby is a genius!”

Babies’ brains are developing at a rate of 3 billion new connections per second so when you sing ‘This Little Piggy’ and tickle their toes after bathtime, there are fireworks going off inside their gorgeous little heads. Did you realise that when bébé is staring back at you during those seemingly endless feeds, their brains are using more energy looking at your face than a World Championship chess player plotting their next three killer moves?

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Well, recent research has produced photographic evidence proving that from birth to age 4, children’s brains are at their most ‘plastic’ – in other words they are working at super warp speed to wire and rewire and acquire knowledge.  

Basically, babies and toddlers are unbeatable at a learning.

And they learn everything: sounds, words, emotions, behaviour, movement, balancing, music, the names of all the darn Paw Patrol characters...the stimulation they get from their environment gets absorbed at an incredible rate from birth to age 4 and then, frankly, it’s all a bit downhill from there. This early ‘window of opportunity’ is particularly useful for humans because we need to acquire language to communicate and cooperate with our tribe for survival. Whereas animals have evolved fast legs for running from predators or claws and fangs to attack, we possess complex language acquisition skills from birth. Babies are capable of learning any language they are exposed to. Makes sense really: if they hear it or see it, they learn it.

I am always fascinated by studies of bilingualism, a relatively new area of research, and how babies acquire language. Far from having no language skills until they start babbling at one, then mimicking everything you say (with some hilarious consequences!) at two, babies are now known to be experts in differentiating between languages from birth and at six months a baby can hear sounds in any language.

This early stage of their language development is often overlooked as, to the untrained eye, the babies don’t seem to be doing anything. Far from it! What they are doing is listening, the very first and arguably the most important stage of learning a language. They listen even before they are born, and at birth babies of bilingual mothers can differentiate between the languages their mother speaks, being soothed by the sounds they are familiar with, and other ‘foreign’ languages.

Even if you are not bilingual yourself, your baby can hear all of the sounds in the world and recognise which ones belong to their mother tongue, or primary language, and which ones don’t. Gradually they filter out the ones they don’t need, simply because they don’t hear them that often, and their brains start to focus on the sounds they are going to use the most.

So by their first birthday, when they may finally utter those immortal ‘dada’ or ‘mama’ sounds we’ve been waiting to hear them say for months, their brains are already focusing on English sounds, English vocabulary and English rhythms and patterns of speech. The rhythm is what they learn first, providing the grammar of their language, and they’ve internalised the grammar by the time they hit 12 months. But more on that later.

Studies done in America show that by 10-12 months, monolingual babies no longer tune into sounds of different languages like they did at six months, whereas bilingual babies continue to be interested in both sets of sounds and are beginning to distinguish and separate them into the two groups of sounds or, in other words, the two languages. And unlike adults trying to master a second language, babies just take it in their stride – they do it effortlessly!

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Okay, that’s all fine, but what if you feel like a total numpty at languages and would be embarrassed to be caught speaking your high-school French (Bonjour! Je m’appelle maman!) to your bébé in the Waitrose café? Your baby might be a genius, but don’t you have to be one to teach them another language?

Erm, no actually, you don’t need any fancy skills at all to get your little ones learning and loving languages during this prime-time learning period from birth to school age. You may have forgotten due to all the recent sleeplessness, but you were a baby once and so you’ve got awesome language-learning skills too! They’re just so internalised and automatic you hardly notice them.

You never forget the words to your favourite pop song, right? Well that’s because you listened to it countless times, and sang it, and danced to it, and talked about it with your friends, and probably wrote the lyrics out when you should have been doing your homework.

Replicate this process with young children by singing songs, dancing, playing and reading stories in other languages from before they can even speak, and they will grow up with those songs and games and stories as part of the foundation of their learning for life, as part of the bricks and mortar of their brain’s architecture, not just the ‘quick-fix exam study and then forget it’ type of language-learning many of us have experienced as teenagers. Lists of fruit and vegetable vocabulary? Useless! Memorising GCSE oral exam speeches sadly does not give us the virtuoso language skills of a native. What we need to do is learn language in context, so that we are actually using it, speaking it and it makes connections with existing knowledge in our brains. That’s the powerful stuff: creating long-term memories (not short-term exam-cramming ones).

Sadly you can’t cheat and just stick on a DVD for the baby in French. Babies require social interaction to learn language because the context is important: who am I trying to communicate with? What do I need to get across to them right now? How are they responding? These are the cues we use in conversations, so face-to-face interactions are the only way to go with little ones.

Right, let’s tackle the G-word: GRAMMAR. I’ll bet my new Converse that it conjures up images of verb tables, tears and teenage angst in many of you. No surprise really, as it’s often been taught separately from contextual language, like some kind of alien life-form that we can never hope to comprehend.

Now listen up because I’m going to reveal a world-exclusive here: grammar isn’t actually separate from language, it is language. Remember I said that babies learn the rhythm of language first, not the individual words? They’re a lot like birds tweeting the same patterns of sounds as their mummies. Babies and toddlers will make incomprehensible noises in the pattern of a sentence, and they sound amusingly just like you, but babyish. A toddler trots up to you and says, “Ba ba baba ba?” with intonation like a question way sooner than they say the actual words of the question. The words are in their head, they just haven’t developed all the necessary muscle tone to say them clearly yet. But the WHOLE OF THE GRAMMAR (the rhythm pattern of each language) is already there. Amazing.

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And if only us adults could get into this holistic learning style again, we’d be flipping amazing at languages too. Sing songs in languages you don’t even know yet! It’s a revolution, people. You’ll be humming along to the tune in week 1, recognising the words in week 2, babbling away in week 3, and singing ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ in Arabic at dinner parties in no time at all. Promise. Just go for it. Your bébé will also learn how a little bit of enthusiasm and a can-do attitude goes a very long way. There’s no judgement from them, just lots of smiles and plenty to talk about when you get home.

This post first appeared on the fabulous CheltenhamMaman blog and is reproduced here with kind permission. If you've not already discovered it, CheltenhamMaman is much more than just a blog: it's a jobs and events hub too, and a great network of local MumBosses. Discover and enjoy!