March 12, 2012

Infants Understand More Of What’s Said Than You Think

New research suggests that babies as young as 6 months old understand more than their own names, “mommy”, and “daddy”. By simply being exposed to basic, everyday language, infants are able to pick up and understand much more than previously thought.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the findings of this new study conducted by Elika Bergeson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and her co-author, Professor Daniel Swingly, also with the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Since infants are unable to tell us what they know or recognize, scientists look for patterns in what the child is looking at and where the child´s attention is focused.

The researchers used a method called “language-guided-looking” or “Looking-while-listening” to study the infants´ reactions to two sets of pictures. Working together with the parents, the researchers studied 33 six to nine month old children. The children were shown the two sets of pictures, then a parent would name the items in the picture using sentences like “Look at the banana.” The researchers were interested in where the infants attention was focused as the parents spoke to them. Researchers were surprised to find that the majority of the children tested recognized most of the 20 items tested, many of them food or body parts. Researchers then compared these results to tests conducted with 50 babies from 10 to 20 months old.

According to the National Science Foundation, Bergelson said “By six months, infants understand the meaning of words related to foods and body parts. Unlike previous research, which has shown that young infants know their own name or the words ℠mommy´ or ℠daddy,´ or can be trained to learn words for novel objects in the lab, here we show that infants have knowledge about word categories that are a part of their daily life.”

Earlier research suggested that babies younger than 10 months old are considered “prelinguistic”, unable to start learning words until their first birthday. This conventional thinking led the researchers to expect very different results from their tests.

“We were most surprised that we found evidence of word-meaning knowledge this early,” said Swingley. “We knew that infants around this age were very good at discriminating and categorizing speech sounds, but it seemed unlikely that they would be able to show word-meaning knowledge, without training, in the laboratory setting.”

The new study is likely to change the way scientists understand the development of language acquisition. One understanding that the new study confirms is the link between a child´s vocabulary and the frequency with which parents speak to their children.

“There´s more and more work showing strong correlations between how much parents talk to their young children and those children´s vocabulary size,” Swingley said. “Overheard language doesn´t do it, television doesn´t do it. What young children learn from best is when we treat them as real conversational partners.”


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