Brain scans of infants show that the anatomy of certain brain areas can predict the language ability of children when they are a year old, says study.
The cerebellum is typically linked to motor learning (picking up new skills) while the hippocampus is commonly recognised as a memory processor.
"The brain of the baby holds an infinite number of secrets just waiting to be uncovered. These discoveries will show us why infants learn languages like sponges, far surpassing our skills as adults," said co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.
"The brain uses many general skills to learn language. Knowing which brain regions are linked to this early learning could help identify children with developmental disabilities and provide them with early interventions that will steer them back toward a typical developmental path," Kuhl said, the journal Brain and Language reports.
Children's language skills soar after they reach their first birthdays, but little is known about how infants' early brain development seeds that path. Identifying which brain areas are related to early language learning could provide a first glimpse of development going awry, allowing for treatments to begin earlier.
"Infancy may be the most important phase of post-natal brain development in humans," said Dilara Deniz Can, postdoctoral researcher, who co-authored the study with Todd Richards, professor of radiology.
"Our results showing brain structures linked to later language ability in typically developing infants is a first step toward examining links to brain and behaviour in young children with linguistic, psychological and social delays," added Can.
Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain structure of a group of boys and girls at seven months. Five months later, when the children were about a year old, they returned to the lab for a language test.
Infants with a greater concentration of grey and white matter in the cerebellum and the hippocampus showed greater language ability when they were a year old. This is the first study to identify a relationship between language and the cerebellum and hippocampus in infants. Neither brain area is well-known for its role in language.