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Finnish Study

Summation of research done at the University of Turku, Finland and published in the British scientific journal Nature. 

Babies learn in their sleep 

February 6, 2002 

Students should be jealous - not only do babies get to doze their days away, but they have also mastered the art of learning in their sleep.

By the time babies are a year old they can recognize a lot of sounds and even simple words. Marie Cheour at the University of Turku in Finland suspected they might progress this fast because they learn language while they sleep as well as when they are awake. 

To test the theory, Cheour and her colleagues studied 45 newborn babies in the first few days of their lives. They exposed all the infants to an hour of Finnish vowel sounds - one that sounds like "oo", another like "ee", and a third boundary vowel peculiar to Finnish and similar languages that sounds like something in between. EEG recordings of the infants brains before and after the session showed that the newborns could not distinguish between the sounds. 

Fifteen of the babies then went back with their mothers, while the rest were split into two sleep-study groups. One group was exposed throughout their night-time sleeping hours to the same three vowels, while the others listened to other, easier-to-distinguish vowel sounds. 

Brainwave

When tested in the morning, and again in the evening, the babies who had heard the tricky boundary vowel all night showed brainwave activity indicating that they could now recognize this new sound. They could identify the sound even when its pitch was changed, while none of the other babies could pick out the boundary vowel at all. 

Cheour doesn't know how babies accomplish this night-time learning, but she suspects that the special ability might indicate that unlike adults, babies don't "turn off" their cerebral cortex while they sleep. The skill probably fades in the course of the first year of life, she adds--so forget the idea that you can pick up tricky French vowels as an adult just by slipping a language tape under your pillow. 

But while it may not help grown-ups, Cheour is hoping to use the sleeping hours to give remedial help to babies who are genetically at risk of language disorders. 

Journal reference: Nature (vol 415, p 599) 

Alison Motlük 

This story is from NewScientist.com's news service--for more exclusive news and expert analysis every week subscribe to New Scientist print edition.


Editor's Note: The key points here are that young children are very good at picking up subtle differences in sounds, even in their sleep, and this ability fades by one year of age. BabyPlus is truly an age-appropriate curriculum.

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