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Dev Sci. 2019 Apr 12:e12825. doi: 10.1111/desc.12825. [Epub ahead of print]

Demystifying infant vocal imitation: The roles of mouth looking and speaker's gaze.

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Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan.
Faculty of Education, Musashino University, Tokyo, Japan.
Department of Psychology, Otemon Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.
The Institute for Social Neuroscience Psychology, Heidelberg, Victoria, Australia.


Vocal imitation plays a fundamental role in human language acquisition from infancy. Little is known, however, about how infants imitate other's sounds. We focused on three factors: (a) whether infants receive information from upright faces, (b) the infant's observation of the speaker's mouth and (c) the speaker directing their gaze towards the infant. We recorded the eye movements of 6-month-olds who participated in experiments watching videos of a speaker producing vowel sounds. We found that an infants' tendency to vocally imitate such videos increased as a function of (a) seeing upright rather than inverted faces, (b) their increased looking towards the speaker's mouth and (c) whether the speaker directed their gaze towards, rather than away from infants. These latter findings are consistent with theories of motor resonance and natural pedagogy respectively. New light has been shed on the cues and underlying mechanisms linking infant speech perception and production.


audiovisual speech perception; eye contact; infants; language development; vocal imitation


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