The accepted view is that infants aged six to nine months begin learning their native language by exploring the various sounds that make up words, but that grasping the meaning of these words was beyond them. The traditional view is that word comprehension only emerges close to a child's first birthday.
Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania tested 33 babies aged six to nine months to try to determine when infants begin to understand what is meant by specific words.
Children were sat on the lap of their parent or carer to undergo two tests. In the first, they were a shown a screen on which there were images of one item of food and one part of the human body. The parent then made statements or asked questions such as “Look at the apple,” or, “Where’s the apple?”
An eye-tracking device was used to check where the child was looking.
In the second test, the item of food and the part of the body were displayed in a natural context, such as a few types of food laid out on a table, or a human figure.
The researchers also had 50 children from 10 to 20 months complete the same tests to see how their abilities compared with the younger group.
Tracking eye movement
In both the tests the researchers found that the six- to nine-month-old babies fixed their gaze more on the picture that was named than on the other image or images, indicating that they understood that the word was associated with the appropriate object.
Results from the same test carried out on the older children found little improvement until the children reached roughly 14 months, at which point word recognition jumped markedly.
"I think it’s surprising in the sense that the kids at this age aren’t saying anything, they’re not pointing, they’re not walking," says Elika Bergelson, one of the researchers. "But actually, under the surface, they’re trying to put together the things in the world with the words that go with them.”
Co-author Daniel Swingley, an associate professor in the university's psychology department, says in a statement: "I think this study presents a great message to parents: you can talk to your babies and they’re going to understand a bit of what you’re saying. They’re not going to give us back witty repartee, but they understand some of it. And the more they know, the more they can build on what they know."
The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Press release, University of Pennsylvania.
'At 6-9 months, human infants know the meanings of many common nouns', Elika Bergelson, Daniel Swingley, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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