Do you see what I'm saying? Infants and children look at your lips when you talk!
Written by: Ashley Avarino
We use the expression, “Do you see what I’m saying?” when we want to make sure someone understands us. But why would we ask if they can see what we’re saying, when spoken language consists of sounds? Although we might think of spoken language as something we only hear, there are actually visual elements of language, too. One of these is a speaker’s lip movements.
Looking at someone’s mouth can give us information about the sounds they are making, and in some cases, this helps us understand what they’re saying. You have probably experienced this yourself if you have ever struggled to hear someone in a loud, crowded room – it becomes easier to hear what they’re saying when you look at their mouth.
Is this something that only adults do? Or does your child also use lip movements to help them understand what someone is saying? Keep reading to find out!
Research by David Lewkowicz and colleagues suggests that infants begin to look at a speaker’s mouth during their first year of life. These researchers had infants aged 4-months to 12-months watch a video of an adult speaking English. While the infants were watching the video, the researchers tracked their eye movements to see what part of the adult’s face they were looking at. They found that infants aged 4-6-months looked more at the adult’s eyes, but infants aged 8-12-months looked more at the adult’s mouth. This is neat, because it’s between the ages of 8-12-months that infants learn which sounds are important in their native language! This suggests that infants pay attention to as much information as they can, including lip movements, during this process.
Older children also look at the mouth of someone talking to them. Elizabeth Morin-Lessard and her colleagues investigated looking to the mouth in infants aged 5-months to 14-months, toddlers aged 2-3 years, and children aged 4-5 years. They found that the only age group that did not prefer to look at the mouth while watching an adult talk was 5-month-olds. So, with the exception of the littlest among us, language learners spend a lot of time looking at their conversation partner’s mouth!
You may be wondering what happens when we can’t see someone’s mouth, for example, when they are wearing a mask. Masks are important for keeping us safe during the pandemic, but they block access to a speaker’s lip movements. Does mask-wearing influence language development?
The short answer to this question is: don’t worry! While the above research demonstrates that infants and children look at the mouth when an individual is talking, looking to the mouth is not necessary for language development. Children who cannot see the mouths of those they are talking to (e.g., children who are blind, or children in cultures where face coverings are common) do not experience any delays in their language development. Why not? Because the most important language cue is speech! And, language learners make use of many other linguistic cues, with lip movements being just one! For example, infants and children also pay attention to where someone is looking as they talk, and this can help them learn the meaning of words. (Stay tuned for our next language blog post, where we discuss the top 5 cues your child uses while learning language).
It’s also important to remember that infants and young children receive most of their language input from primary caregivers. Many studies have shown that this is the most important language input for their language development. Your child will have plenty of opportunity to pay attention to your lip movements when you are home without a mask, to give them a little language boost!
Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:
Lewkowicz, D. J., & Hansen-Tift, A. M. (2012). Infants deploy selective attention to the mouth of a talking face when learning speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(5), 1431-1436. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1114783109
Morin-Lessard, E., Poulin-Dubois, D., Segalowitz, N., & Byers-Heinlein, K. (2019). Selective attention to the mouth of talking faces in monolinguals and bilinguals aged 5 months to 5 years. Developmental psychology, 55(8), 1640–1655. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000750