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Wired for Words

Written language has existed for at least 5000 years and has been essential to the development of many of our most magnificent feats. Education, poetry, commerce and theatre would all be impossible without the written word.

New research shows that babies’ brains are prewired to recognise words and letters. This development has helped solidify that language is at the heart of human evolution. Researchers from Ohio State University have found that at birth, visual brain regions are heavily connected to language centres of the brain.

The study suggests that these visual brain regions, whilst not designed for reading, are “sensitive” to the written word and become more attuned as infants learn to speak and later, when they learn to read. This finding is so exciting because it demonstrates that even before they are born, children are preparing to engage in the world that will soon be all around them.

These findings help to reinforce the idea that the human brain is made for communication. Even babies who are born deaf, learn to babble before they sign. They "babble" with their hands, just like hearing babies do with their mouths.

Our brains are designed to recognise and assign meaning to patterns. After all, this is what is at the heart of language – meaning assigned to sounds and noises.

The study also helps to explain how infants are able to learn language so quickly – going from non-verbal to fluent within a few short years. By 9 months, many babies understand basic words like "no" and "bye-bye." At the end of 12 months, most babies will have a few simple words like "mama" and "dada" - and know what they're saying.

Beyond the spoken word, understanding the written word is an essential skill that serves us throughout our lives. Better understanding how reading and writing skills develop, especially at a young age, helps us know what to do when things go wrong. This kind of knowledge may be especially useful when it comes to the study of dyslexia and other developmental disorders.

References: Li et al. 2020; Petitto et al. 2001; Ostler 2005; Lieberman 1998

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