Infant-directed speech facilitates word learning through attentional mechanisms: An fNIRS study of toddlers

Xin Zhou*, Luchang Wang, Xuancu Hong, Patrick C.M. Wong*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The speech register that adults especially caregivers use when interacting with infants and toddlers, that is, infant-directed speech (IDS) or baby talk, has been reported to facilitate language development throughout the early years. However, the neural mechanisms as well as why IDS results in such a developmental faciliatory effect remain to be investigated. The current study uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to evaluate two alternative hypotheses of such a facilitative effect, that IDS serves to enhance linguistic contrastiveness or to attract the child's attention. Behavioral and fNIRS data were acquired from twenty-seven Cantonese-learning toddlers 15–20 months of age when their parents spoke to them in either an IDS or adult-directed speech (ADS) register in a naturalistic task in which the child learned four disyllabic pseudowords. fNIRS results showed significantly greater neural responses to IDS than ADS register in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (L-dlPFC), but opposite response patterns in the bilateral inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). The differences in fNIRS responses to IDS and to ADS in the L-dlPFC and the left parietal cortex (L-PC) showed significantly positive correlations with the differences in the behavioral word-learning performance of toddlers. The same fNIRS measures in the L-dlPFC and right PC (R-PC) of toddlers were significantly correlated with pitch range differences of parents between the two speech conditions. Together, our results suggest that the dynamic prosody in IDS increased toddlers’ attention through greater involvement of the left frontoparietal network that facilitated word learning, compared to ADS. Research Highlights: This study for the first time examined the neural mechanisms of how infant-directed speech (IDS) facilitates word learning in toddlers. Using fNIRS, we identified the cortical regions that were directly involved in IDS processing. Our results suggest that IDS facilitates word learning by engaging a right-lateralized prosody processing and top-down attentional mechanisms in the left frontoparietal networks. The language network including the inferior frontal gyrus and temporal cortex was not directly involved in IDS processing to support word learning.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13424
Pages (from-to)e13424
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2023


  • functional near-infrared spectroscopy
  • infant-directed speech
  • modified intermodal preferential paradigm
  • toddler
  • word learning


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