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: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

In the first three months, infants exhibit listening preferences and behaviors that help them learn about language and their environment. It appears that even in utero, infants are listening. Listening provides opportunities for even very young infants to process and comprehend some aspects of speech. Listening develops within the framework of the interaction between the infant and caregiver. For more information on listening, please refer to Interacting 0 – 3 Months.

Hearing Sensitivity – Foundation for Listening

Hearing sensitivity in infants is affected by fluid in the middle ear, which reabsorbs within two weeks of birth, and by the immaturity of the cortex (Owens, 2001). The immaturity of the cortex and lack of internal coordination of the right and left hemispheres affect the ability of infants to integrate sounds. Consequently, the point at which infants begin responding to sounds is 10 to 20 decibels louder than for adults (Dehart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2000). Infants are sensitive to sounds within the frequency range of the human voice (Owens, 2001). Infants’ response to sound is monitored by eye blinks, changes in heart rate, and changes in the brain’s electrical activity.

Responsiveness to Voice

The behavior of infants is affected by the sounds heard while in utero. Within 20 minutes of birth, infants exhibit entrainment (i.e., discrete and continuous body movements) in response to speech but not to discontinuous sounds such as tapping or disconnected vowels (Owens, 2001). Three-day-old infants recognize the sound patterns of stories read to them while in utero (Dehart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2000; Owens, 2001) and are more responsive to the voice of their mother than to other voices (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005; Sachs, 2005).

Listening Preferences

Within days of birth, infants also exhibit auditory preferences. Infants demonstrate a preference for their mother’s voice over all other voices, as measured by increased sucking rate (Owens, 2001; Sachs, 2005) and will stop crying in response to their mother’s voice (Owens, 2001). By two months, infants indicate this preference by visually tracking their mother’s voice and by averting their gaze from the direction of unfamiliar voices (Owens, 2001).

Infants prefer the human voice over nonhuman sounds (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Owens, 2001). Upon hearing a voice, search and recognition behaviors are observed. Recognition behaviors include widening of the eyes, broadening of the face, and tilting of the head towards the sound source (Owens, 2001). This pattern of behaviors occurs exclusively in response to the human voice.

Sound and Language Discrimination

Infants under three months can discriminate between sounds that vary in a single phonemic feature (i.e., voicing, place or manner; e.g., “ba” and “pa”) (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Dehart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2000; Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005; Owens, 2001). Infants cannot distinguish the difference between /f/ as in “foot” and “th” as in “think,” which remains difficult until age five (Owens, 2001). To determine discrimination, infants suck on a pacifier while the researcher plays a sound repeatedly (e.g., “ba, ba, ba”). When the sucking rate decreases, the researcher will change the sound (e.g., “pa, pa, pa”). If sucking rate increases, this change in sucking rate is described as evidence of infants’ ability to discriminate sounds. Investigation into the discrimination abilities of infants has focused on minimal pairs (e.g., “ba” and “pa”). It is not known whether infants are able to distinguish minimally contrastive sounds (e.g., /p/ and /b/) presented in different phonetic environments (e.g., “pet” and “boo”) (Owens, 2001).

Infants can discriminate between the sound of the maternal language and other languages (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005). It has been hypothesized that the ability of infants to discriminate between these stimuli relies on prosodic features (i.e., intonation, stress and rate) rather than phonetic features (i.e., sounds of the language) (Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005).  Infants also prefer the sound of the maternal language over other languages (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005).

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Research Review: 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