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

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Listening (4 – 6 Months) - Increasing Responsivenessclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

Listening provides babies with their gateway to spoken language. From four- to six-months-old, babies become increasingly responsive to sounds and language. They also show preferences for caregivers’ speaking patterns. Keep in mind that your baby’s listening skills develop within the framework of his or her emerging interaction skills. Please refer to Interacting 4 – 6 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.

Responsiveness to Voice

Four- to six-month-old babies continue to prefer human voices. By the time they are four months old, babies can hear the difference between angry and friendly voices and will respond differently to these voices. They also turn their heads towards sounds. Max’s mom has noticed how he turns his head towards the door when he hears his daddy come home from work.

At five months of age, many babies will respond to their names. In fact, the first word a baby learns may be his or her own name. Babies seem to prefer the sound of their names over other similar-sounding words. Avery’s dad has noticed that she seems to respond with more smiles and looks when he uses her name as he talks with her.

Listening Preferences

Babies, even as young as two days old, have been found to prefer the sound of “baby talk” or “child-directed speech.” Child-directed speech sounds different than regular conversational speech. The pitch is higher and more variable and words are pronounced in an exaggerated way. The changes in pitch makes voices sound more musical. Exaggeration makes certain parts of words stand out. Notice these changes in pitch and stress in the following example of Avery’s mom talking baby talk. Click here for audio clip (Insert Listening Audio 1 – Baby Talk).

As Avery’s grandparents are in Newfoundland, they often visit with Avery over the phone. Avery’s parents notice that Avery seems to enjoy the sound of her grandparents’ baby talk even long-distance!! She appears to listen intently to the sounds coming from the phone – if only for a short while!

Babies may actually be responding to the positive emotions of child-directed speech not to its sound characteristics. In experiments, six-month-olds preferred messages that were happy regardless of whether they followed the sound pattern of baby talk or not.

Sound and Language Discrimination

Researchers have shown that babies younger than three months old are able to hear the difference between certain consonant sounds such as “b” and “p.” For more information please refer to Listening 0 – 3 Months. By as early as six months, infants begin to lose the ability to hear the difference between sounds that are not in their home language. This is a sign that babies’ auditory systems are starting to tune into the language of their families.

Sample Gosse, H., & Gotzke, C. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Listening 4 - 6 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