April 18, 2011

‘Ums and Uhs’ Help Toddlers Learn

(Ivanhoe Newswire) --Those "ums" and "uhs" and other filler clauses that break up your sentences may actually be beneficial for toddlers. A new study at the University of Rochester's Baby Lab found that toddlers can use those common hesitations, known as disfluencies, to help them learn language better.

One example researchers gave was a parent who was teaching a toddler the names of animals. If the parent points to a rhinoceros and says, "Look at the, uh, uh, rhinoceros," the stumbling is signaling to the child that the parent is about to teach something new, so they should pay attention.

The research was conducted by Richard Aslin, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, Celeste Kidd, a graduate student at the University of Rochester, and Katherine White, a former postdoctoral fellow at Rochester. For the study, they examined three groups of toddlers between the ages of 18 and 30 months. The children were asked to sit on their parents' laps in front of a monitor with an eye-tracking tool. Two images appeared on the screen: one had a familiar item (like a ball) and one had a made-up image (which was given an unfamiliar name). A recorded voice talked about the objects. Researchers found that when the voice stumbled and said, "Look at the, uh"¦" the child looked at the made-up image much more often than the familiar image --nearly 70 percent of the time.

Researchers say the effect was only significant in children older than 2 years old. The researchers reasoned that the younger children had not yet learned that disfluencies tend to precede new or unfamiliar words. Also, 2 and 3 year olds are usually at a developmental stage where they can form small sentences and have a vocabulary of a few hundred words. Researchers say this is good news for parents who thought they were setting a bad example for their children.

"We're not advocating that parents add disfluencies to their speech, but I think it's nice for them to know that using these verbal pauses is OK -- the "uh's" and "um's" are informative," Celeste Kidd, the study's lead author, was quoted as saying.

SOURCE: Developmental Science, April 14, 2011