The babies who learned the sounds of a foreign language best were the ones who were better at looking back and forth between Spanish-speaking tutors and the toys the tutors described.

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Children learn languages so easily that it’s tempting to imagine that they’re passive little sponges soaking up everything they hear.

But a new study from the University of Washington shows that 10-month-old babies use their eyes as well as their ears to learn the sounds of a foreign language.

The study involved 17 babies from English-speaking homes who participated in a dozen 25-minute Spanish lessons.

The babies sat in front of a parent while native Spanish-speakers described a rubber duckie and other toys.

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“The babies were very interested in what was going on,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Rechele Brooks, a researcher at the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “They’re interacting with the adult, even though the adult is not speaking English with them.”

She and her colleagues found that babies who were better at looking back and forth between the Spanish-speaking tutors and the toys were also better at distinguishing the sounds of Spanish. The researchers measured language-learning skills by recording electrical brain wave activity within a fraction of a second after babies heard the sounds.

Recordings of their brain wave patterns before the babies started the lessons showed no special response to hearing Spanish. But after the lessons, the patterns showed their brains were noticing the sounds unique to Spanish, an important first step toward learning the language.

The study links tw0 separate infant abilities: learning a language and shifting one’s gaze to look at the same thing someone else is looking at.  The latter is an important social skill that is just beginning to emerge at 10 months.

“It’s so exciting for parents when [babies] start making eye contact while they’re playing,” Brooks said.  

Brooks and lead author Barbara Conboy, a former I-Labs researcher now at the University of Redlands, found a strong relationship between language learning and gaze-shifting. But the study wasn’t designed to prove one causes the other.

Their work expands on previous findings by I-Labs co-director Patricia Kuhl that babies from homes where their parents speak English could learn the sounds of Mandarin from a live teacher, but not from television or an audio recording.

“We’ve been showing that if kids are given the opportunity, they can boost their own language learning by using their own social skills,” Brooks said.

The study appears in the current issue of Developmental Neuropsychology.