Researchers from Britain, France, and Italy have revealed that newborn babies have the ability to pick out words from speeches at just three days old.

Funded by the European Research Council, the study was the product of collaboration between scientists at the International School for Advanced Studies in Italy, the Neurospin Centre in France, the University of Liverpool and the University of Manchester.

The scientists discovered two mechanisms in three-day-old infants, which give them the skills to pick out words in a stream of sounds, as they played to the infants a three and a half minute audio clip in which four meaningless words were buried in a stream of syllables.

Using a painless technique called Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, which shines a light into the brain, the researchers were able to measure how much was absorbed, telling them which parts of the brain were active.

One of the researchers, Dr Alissa Ferry of the University of Manchester, said the discovery provided key insight into the first step to learning a language.

She explained that one of the mechanisms discovered by the researchers was known as prosody, the melody of language, which allowed humans to recognise when a word started and stopped.

Other scientists called it the statistics of language, a mechanism that tells how people compute the frequency when sounds in a word come together.

“We think this study highlights how sentient newborn babies really are and how much information they are absorbing. That is quite important for new parents and gives them some insight into how their baby is listening to them,” the team wrote.

Another researcher, Dr Ana Flò, of the Neurospin Centre in France, said, “Language is incredibly complicated and this study is about understanding how infants try to make sense of it when they first hear it.

“We often think of language as being made up of words, but words often blur together when we talk. So, one of the first steps to learning a language is to pick out the words. Our study shows that at just three days old, without understanding what it means, babies can pick out individual words from speech. And we have identified two important tools that we are almost certainly born with, which give them the ability to do this.”

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