Have you ever tried lip-reading? It turns out the answer is yes, even if you didn’t know it. Babies are often stare at people; it’s just one of their adorable qualities. But it turns out they aren’t just staring, they are studying language.
Research from Florida Atlantic University has shown that babies quickly transition from relying on intent stares for language acquisition to relying directly on lip-reading. The researchers studied babies, ages 4 to 12 months, who watched a woman speaking in English on TV. At four months of age, the study subjects focused only on the speaker’s eyes while she spoke. At six to eight months, as cognitive skills improved, the babies paid more attention to her lips.
At ten months old, babies then transition back to eye contact, utilizing their newly acquired listening skills – at this point they have learned their native language structures and can now focus on social cues.
A different group of infants was shown a video of a Spanish-speaking woman from four to twelve months. By eight months, they started reading lips. Interestingly, their lip-reading phase lasted longer than the infants who were acquiring English.
Study data suggests a relation between abnormally late transitions back to eye contact and a potential for autism, due to the infant’s inability to return to states of social assimilation.
The study slightly contradicts Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition theory, which asserts that every human being is born with a LAD (Language Acquisition Device) that recognizes and masters language by organizing the grammatical structure in the child’s brain. Chomsky also used as evidence the fact that infants do not “imitate” what their parents say. The language they receive from adults is often broken and ungrammatical, proving that some internal filter must exist for the child to master a language structure.
Antagonists of such theory point out to the fact that a child does not acquire their language structure based on what they hear from parents does not prove that they necessarily acquire it from an internal mechanism. There could be some other internal (or external) unknown influence in play. Read an actual dialogue Chomsky observed as evidence and more theories here.