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Babies Can Understand Words Before They Can Talk

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Babies start to learn words and can figure out what they mean long before they can even begin talking. Researchers are just now figuring out how they do it.

Dr. Elika Bergelson from Duke University, Durham in North Carolina, said, “I think it’s especially intriguing that we find evidence that for infants, even their early words aren’t ‘islands’: even with a very small vocabulary they seem to have a sense that some words and concepts are more ‘similar’ than others.” She explained further,

While they still have a lot to learn before they show adult-like or even toddler-like levels of comprehension, this gives us a peek into how those early words and concepts are organized.

Learning how to talk means making connections between speech and the world around a person, and understanding how different words connect, Reuters reports.

Begelson’s team studied babies six months old to see whether the children recognized these word connections, instead of just identifying the words as they are.

The researchers used eye tracking and found that babies looked more at pictures of objects with names when the objects were put together with unrelated objects, compared to when the objects were paired with related objects.

This means that infants “may know enough about a word’s meaning to tell it apart from the unrelated referent but not the related one…That is, perhaps infants know ‘car’ cannot refer to juice, but not whether stroller is in the ‘car’ category.”

The team also looked at home video recordings, where they observed that babies learned to recognize words more when they could see the object being used.

In addition, how often a word was used seemed to have a better effect on an infant’s understanding, rather than who said the word.

Bergelson said, “I think before figuring out how to enhance vocabulary development, we need to better understand how it proceeds ‘typically’ – this paper is a first step in that direction. That said, I think one thing suggested by our work is that talking more with young babies, and focusing in on what they’re looking at and caring about certainly won’t hurt – and it might even help – with early language development.”

Bergelson recommends that adults treat their babies “like a real conversational partner.” She said, “Even young infants are listening and learning about words and the world around them before they start talking themselves, and their caregivers make that possible.”

The study was published in PNAS.

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