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Shhh! Baby's Learning

Background noise slows infant's language acquisition, study finds

THURSDAY, July 14, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Even mild background noise in the home -- such as other children playing or watching television -- can impair a baby's ability to pick up language, researchers report.

"This research reaffirms how important it is for a child to see the face of a person while hearing him or her speak," George Hollich, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, said in a prepared statement. "This is the first study to show how children are easily distracted when the background noise is at the same loudness as the person talking to the child. We found that even soft noise can be a problem."

He and his colleagues conducted four studies to determine how environmental noises affected language development in 116 7-month-old infants.

They found that background noise can pose the same problems for these children as it does for hearing-challenged older adults in the middle of a noisy cocktail party.

"Older adults who are hard of hearing use their other senses, such as vision, to better understand speech. We thought this might be what infants do when they are in a noisy environment. Struggling to hear can be annoying for adults, so just imagine how distracting it is for infants who are trying to learn a language," said Hollich, who is also director of Purdue's Infant Language Laboratory.

"Unlike the printed word, speech doesn't use commas, spaces or periods to separate words and concepts. If there is more than one source of speech, it's especially hard for the infant to know when one word ends and another begins. That is why infants need to match what they hear with the movements of the speaker's face," he said.

The study was published in the June issue of Child Development.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has more about speech and language development.

SOURCE: Purdue University, news release, June 16, 2005
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