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

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Listening (7 – 9 Months) – Attending to Conversationclick 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. Seven- to nine-month-old babies are starting to respond more consistently to their caregivers’ speech. These babies are also starting to demonstrate their understanding of what is said to them. Keep in mind that, as always, your baby’s listening skills develop within the framework of his or her emerging interaction skills. For more information, please refer to Interacting 7 – 9 Months. 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

Between seven and nine months of age, babies show that they are listening by responding more consistently to what their caregivers say.  Avery’s mom has noticed that Avery almost always smiles when her mom makes a rhyme with her name like “Avery-Wavery” and says it in a sing-song voice. As well, your baby will likely be able to tell the difference between your angry and happy voices. Avery’s mom was amazed to notice Avery looking anxious when she overheard her mom arguing with a repairman on the telephone. She really didn’t seem to like her mom’s tone of voice! Researchers have also found that seven- to nine-month-old babies can even notice differences in vowels and the beginning sounds of words. You may notice that your baby is paying even closer attention to you and your voice than he or she did in the previous six months.

Listening Preferences

By eight months of age, babies seem to prefer to listen to single words instead of conversation and will look at objects when they are named. Max’s dad has noticed that Max seems to listen very closely when his dad names the animals in his toy collection. This preference for listening to single words may help babies recognize the link between the sound patterns of words and the objects and situations the words refer to. When Max heard the sound pattern of the single word “truck” used many times when his truck is around, he came to associate that sound pattern with his truck. In this same way, your baby will likely come to associate the sound pattern for “Hi” with greeting someone.

Babies begin to pay more attention to conversations by nine months of age.

Sound and Language Discrimination

As seven- to nine-month-old babies gain more experience with the language(s) around them though, they gradually lose their ability to recognize differences in sounds that are not present in the language(s) they hear regularly. Max has only heard English on a regular basis since birth and so he is starting to lose the ability to detect sounds from other languages that are very similar to but not exactly the same as English sounds. In the same way, your baby will be fine-tuning his or her listening skills to the sounds of the language you use at home.

Understanding Language

Between seven and nine months of age, babies show, by responding more consistently, that they understand some of what their caregivers say. By nine months of age, babies may respond to their names and “no.” Researchers have found that nine-month-old babies respond to about 40% of caregiver requests. They are also more likely to react appropriately to requests for action (e.g., Show me puppy) than to requests for vocalization (e.g., Say mama.) By not responding all the time, babies this age begin to develop some control over the communication exchanges with caregivers. At nine months of age, Max does respond to “no” by stopping what he is doing – but only some of the time! While his parents might wish for better, he is even less likely to respond to requests to make the animal sounds that they are trying to teach him.

Listening Strategies

In the first six months, conversations may have seemed like one continuous stream of sound to babies, similar to adults listening to an unfamiliar language. In the second six months of life, babies typically become able to break the speech they hear into meaningful pieces. This ability will be very important to their eventual mastery of language.

Seven- to nine-month-old babies break speech into meaningful parts in two ways: by using the overall sound of the language and by using the specific sound and syllable patterns. Cues from the overall sound or rhythm of their home language(s) such as pauses, pitch changes, or changes in vowel length help babies identify where one sentence ends and another begins but do not provide much information about the meaning of the individual words used. To identify individual words, babies must also rely on their knowledge of the sound and syllable patterns of their home language(s). They have been listening to and learning these patterns and rules since birth. As a result, babies are able to use their listening experience to help them identify where words begin and end.

Once they are able to break speech down into words and phrases, seven- to nine-month-old babies start to match predictable and familiar words and phrases with situations. This matching leads to the development of early word meaning. At nine months of age, Avery is developing an understanding of the word “bath.” With her improved listening abilities, she is able to pick the word “bath” out of the sentences her parents say during that activity – like, “Are you ready for your bath now Avery?” “Let’s get the water in your bathtub first.” “Now we can get you undressed for the bath.” “You like that bath don’t you?” and “Bath time is over now.” As a result, she now responds with a big excited smile when her dad asks her if she would like a bath.  

Sample Gosse, H., & Gotzke, C. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Listening 7 - 9 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 -3. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development