Babies have mastered the art of learning in their sleep. By the time they?re a year old they can recognize many sounds and even simple words. Marie Cheour at the University of Turku in Finland thinks they progress this fast because they learn language while they sleep as well as when they?re awake.

To test her theory, Cheour and her colleagues studied 45 newborn babies in the first few days of their lives. They exposed all the infants to an hour of Finnish vowel sounds – one that sounds like ?oo,? another like ?ee,? and a third sound only found in Finnish that sounds like something in between. EEG recordings of the infants brains before and after the sessions showed that the newborns could not distinguish between the sounds. Fifteen of the babies then went back with their mothers, while the rest were split into two sleep-study groups. One group was exposed throughout their sleep to the same three vowels, while the others listened to other vowel sounds that are easier to distinguish.

When tested in the morning, and again in the evening, the babies who had heard the difficult Finnish vowel all night long showed brainwave activity indicating that they could now recognize this new sound, even when its pitch was changed, while none of the other babies could pick out the vowel at all.

Cheour doesn?t know how babies accomplish this, but she suspects that their special ability might mean that, unlike adults, babies don?t ?turn off? their cerebral cortex while they sleep. Alas, the skill probably fades in the course of the first year of life, so there?s no chance you can learn a foreign language as an adult just by playing a cassette while you sleep.

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