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Gaze Here, Learn More Language

Here’s a social behavior that I wish I knew when my son was an infant: gaze following. It’s where you make eye contact with a baby and then shift your gaze to something else. The baby will follow your gaze. Then you can name the new object you are looking at.

Andrew Meltzoff and colleagues at the University of Washington I-LABS have shown that this helps babies build language and other cognitive skills by shining a sort of “social spotlight” on what’s important.

Gaze following begins to emerge around nine months of age, I-LABS research shows, and leads to larger vocabularies in 2-year-olds. For preschoolers, those who showed more gaze following as infants had a greater ability to understand the world from someone else’s point of view, or what researchers call “theory of mind.”

The next time you try out gaze following with your baby, you might wonder what’s going on in her baby brain. The answer: a lot.

Last summer, I-LABS researchers found that babies who do more gaze following while hearing language show stronger brain responses. This means that babies’ own social skills may have a role in how quickly they learn. This study, published in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology, examined 9.5-month-old babies from English-speaking households who attended specially designed foreign-language tutoring sessions at I-LABS. Over a four-week period, the 17 infants interacted with a Spanish-speaking tutor during a dozen 25-minute sessions. Researchers measured gaze shifting at the beginning and end of the four-week period.

Then the researchers brought the babies back to measure how much Spanish they had learned. Wearing snug-fitting caps with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors that detect tiny electrical activity produced by their brain, the babies listened to a series of English and Spanish sounds.

The results? The more the infant participated in gaze following during the tutoring sessions, the stronger the brain responses. That indicates that they had learned the new language sounds.
So when you’re sitting with a baby, realize he isn’t simply absorbing what’s around him—he’s actively learning. His social skills give him a boost in learning from the people around him. And you can stimulate his brain by encouraging gaze following.

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About the Author

This article was adapted from a longer piece by Molly McElroy, Ph.D., How does baby learn? in the March 2016 Columns alumni magazine. Molly is a neuroscientist and a mom to a toddler. She is the communications and marketing manager at I-LABS. Follow her on Twitter: @mwmcelroy.

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