A baby's ability to wiggle its tongue has a lot to do with the infant's ability to understand speech, say researchers at the University of British Columbia. 

"If you think about it, it makes sense — if we are to become language users, we have to both hear and produce the language that is spoken around us," said Janet Werker, senior author and professor of Psychology at University of British Columbia. 

"There are connections between motor area of the brain and the auditory area of the brain even in early infancy.

"Our work shows that those connections are important in speech processing," she said. 

In the study, six-month-old babies were given teething toys. They then listened to two different Hindi 'd' sounds.

The babies that were able to move their tongues were able to make the distinction. But the babies' tongues that were restricted and unable to mimic the sounds because of the teething toy were unable to distinguish between the sounds. 

Time-out for teething toys

The researchers aren't yet suggesting that teething toys are bad for babies. 

"They are probably not, babies everywhere put something in their mouth," said Werker. 

Instead, Werker is suggesting that babies need time for their tongues to be free so they can learn. 

Researchers hope their work can help with babies that are unable to move their tongue because of oral facial dysmorphology or motor impairments of the mouth. 


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled Babies need free tongue movement to decipher speech sounds on CBC's Daybreak South.