Do babies says "mama" and "papa" because they recognize their parents or did those words become terms for parents because that's what babies first say?

The human brain may be hard-wired to recognize certain repetition patterns, according to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using the latest optical brain imaging techniques, University of British Columbia post-doctoral fellow Judit Gervain and a team of researchers from Italy and Chile documented brain activities of 22 newborns (2-3 days old) when exposed to recordings of made-up words.

The researchers mixed words that end in repeating syllables – such as "mubaba" and "penana" – with words without repetition – such as "mubage" and "penaku." They found increased brain activities in the temporal and left frontal areas of the newborns' brain whenever the repetitious words were played. Words with non-adjacent repetitions ("bamuba" or "napena") elicited no distinctive responses from the brain.

"It's probably no coincidence that many languages around the world have repetitious syllables in their 'child words' – baby and daddy in English, papa in Italian and tata (grandpa) in Hungarian, for example," says Gervain from UBC Dept. of Psychology's Infant Studies Centre.

Scientists have studied how older children and adults acquire grammatical structures. This is one of the first studies on a newborn infant's innate ability to decipher structural patterns in language.

"The language centre of most right-handed adults is located on the left side of the brain," says Gervain. "This is consistent with our finding with new born babies and supports our belief humans are born with abilities that allow us to perceive and learn our mother tongue systematically and efficiently."

"The brain areas that are responsible for language in an adult do not 'learn' how to process language during development, but rather, they are specialized – at least in part – to process language from the start."

Other articles: Marcela Peña, Atsushi Maki, Damir Kovac̆ić, Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, Hideaki Koizumi, Furio Bouquet, and Jacques Mehler, 'Sounds and silence: An optical topography study of language recognition at birth', PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1934290100, PNAS September 30, 2003 vol. 100 no. 20 11702-11705