32. Ears Are for Listening.

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A baby spends his first year of life learning to listen. A new born child comes equipped with a finely tuned pair of ears, but he doesn’t yet know how to use them. A buzz of meaningless noise surrounds him. No one sound means more than any other. Unlike his ears, the hearing center of his brain is still immature. As the baby grows, two things happen. First, he becomes better at picking out certain sounds. Second, he begins to remember them.

This development is easy to see. If you make a loud sound near a day-old baby’s head, you will not see any reaction. Only a check on his pulse or breathing rate will show a change. But just two weeks later, the same noise will make him jerk. He may even turn his head toward you. Now the human voice means something to him. If he hears another baby crying, he will cry. By his fourth to sixth week, sounds like the door bell or the closing of a door no longer surprise him. He can pick out one voice – his mother’s – from all others. That one voice can soothe him and stop his crying. By eight weeks these mother-sounds can make him smile.

What is actually happening is that he starting to learn to listen. He can select certain sounds and memorize them. When he hears that sound again, he can match it with the one he has heard before. These skills are basic to all learning.

At the same time these early hearing and language skills get under way, the child begins to practice sound-making. His first sounds are the discomfort sounds. These are the shrill whines which he seems to spend all his time making. These sounds are heard when he is not quiet or sleeping. These sounds mean nothing to him yet. To his mother they say that he is wet, or uncomfortable or hungry.

Within the baby’s first month, another sound appears: the comfort sounds. These are different from the discomfort sounds. These are more throaty and vowel-like. These coos, sighs and grunts are the beginnings of true speech. As the child grows, his comfort sounds will use more of the vowels and consonants and rhythms which he will later use. These sounds will come together to form the first word. An event that will be long remembered by the proud parents.

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