Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Listening (0 – 3 Months) - Learning about Spoken Language Beginsclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Sample Gosse and Carrie Gotzke, University of Alberta

Listening provides babies with their gateway to spoken language. Your baby llikely started developing listening skills while still in the womb. Remarkably, even very young babies often show specific behaviors that indicate they are ready to begin learning about the spoken language of those around them. Keep in mind that your baby’s listening skills develop within the framework of his or her emerging interaction skills. Please refer to Interacting 0 – 3 Months for more information. If you have concerns about your child’s hearing, please refer to the Auditory section of this website for information on how hearing develops and how to get help.

Hearing Sensitivity – Foundation for Listening

Babies develop listening skills based on a foundation of hearing sensitivity. In fact, newborns best hear sounds that are in the range of the human voice. Your baby was likely born ready to listen to language!  

Responsiveness to Voice  

A fetus can hear sounds generated outside the mother’s abdomen. As a result, your newborn will be more responsive to the sound of the language he or she was exposed to in the womb than the sound of a language he or she has not heard. Researchers believe newborns respond primarily to the general sound patterns of the language – the distinct “music” of the language.

Amazingly, very young babies have even shown some recognition of the sound patterns of a story their mothers read aloud repeatedly while they were in the womb. Within 20 minutes of birth, newborns show a behavior called “entrainment” where they make specific movements that are consistent with the timing of speech they hear. Body motions even change when the sound pattern changes. Avery’s dad noticed these body movements when filming a video of Avery’s mom talking to Avery. When her mom talked quickly and with excitement, Avery’s movements were faster and more jerky than when she talked slowly and quietly. The fact that Avery’s movements are in time with the rate of her mom’s speech suggests that she is attending to the sound patterns of language.

Listening Preferences

Within days of birth, babies show listening preferences. They typically demonstrate a preference for their mother’s voice over all other voices. Max likely learned to recognize his mother’s voice while still in the womb. As a newborn, he preferred his mother’s voice over a stranger’s voice. Max would stop crying to attend to his mother’s voice. By the time they are two-months-old, babies indicate this preference for their mother’s voice by following her with their eyes while she talks and looking away from the direction of unfamiliar voices.

Very young babies also show preferences for the human voice over nonspeech sounds. A newborn will search for the source of a human voice and will demonstrate pleasure or mild surprise when locating the face that is the sound source. When Max sights the face that is the source of a voice, his eyes widen, his face broadens, and he tilts his head and lifts his chin toward the source. He does not show this type of recognition when he finds a nonhuman sound source such as his nan’s piano or his daddy’s truck!

Sound and Language Discrimination

Babies come into the world ready to hear differences between the sounds we use for speech. Within the first four days of life, babies show the ability to discriminate between different speech sounds almost as well as adults can. Using specially designed pacifiers and noisemakers that create speech sounds, researchers have shown that very young babies can hear the slight differences between such sounds as ba and pa. After the babies were given these pacifiers, the researchers started playing repeated pa…pa…pa sounds. At first, the babies sucked on the pacifiers continuously enjoying the repetition of the sounds. Eventually, the sucking rate decreased as the sound became familiar. However, when the researchers switched to repetitions of the new sound, ba, the babies started vigorously sucking again, suggesting that they recognized a difference between the two sounds.

Young babies’ ability to hear differences between sounds does not mean that they understand that those sounds are meaningful or even part of their parents’ language. Babies actually notice many differences in speech sounds that are not part of their native languages. For example, Max was born into an English-speaking family, but as a young baby, he has the ability to tell the difference not only between English speech sounds but also between sounds that are found in other languages such as Japanese or Russian. These studies do show that your baby is ready to listen to some of the fine differences in your speech from the moment he or she is born. Gradually as your baby grows and develops, his or her listening skills will become stronger and more attuned to the language you use.

Sample Gosse, H., & Gotzke, C. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Listening 0 - 3 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 -2. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development