New Clue on How Babies Learn Words

Babies may learn words before their first birthday but not like older kids do.

Experts report that 10-month-old babies can learn new words and usually link those words to interesting objects -- even if those words and objects don’t really go together.

“Ten-month-olds simply ‘glue’ a label onto the most interesting object they see,” says researcher Shannon Pruden, MA, in a news release.

“Perhaps this is why children learn words faster when parents look at and name the objects that infants already find interesting,” adds Pruden, a graduate student studying psychology at Philadelphia’s Temple University.

Pruden’s study appears in Child Development.

Talking to Junior

“Talking with children matters, even at this very early age,” Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, says in a news release.

“Little babies are learning words fast, even at 10 months when they aren’t saying much at all,” adds Golinkoff, a University of Delaware education professor who worked on Pruden’s study.

“Parents should talk to their babies from early on because that’s the only way infants can learn language,” Golinkoff says. “They should also talk about what the baby is interested in.”

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, a psychology professor at Temple University, also worked on the study.

“The exciting thing is that a lot of people weren’t even sure that 10-month-olds were paying attention,” Hirsh-Pasek says, in a news release. “But this study shows that not only are they paying attention, they’re actually learning words,” she adds.

Learning Quickly

The researchers studied 44 babies who were 10 months old. The babies were shown "interesting" and "boring" objects.

The interesting items included a sparkly blue wand and a red, green, and pink party clacker. The clacker had a handle and three brightly colored, movable boards that clacked against each other, making noise.

The boring objects were a beige bottle opener and a white cabinet latch. The babies played with all of the objects and were much more fascinated by the interesting objects, as expected.

Then, playtime ended and the experiment began.

Catching On

The researchers put an interesting object and a boring object on a board and tried to teach the babies a word for one or the other object. They used nonsense words “modi” and “glorp.”

For instance, a researcher would stand between the two objects, make eye contact with the baby (called Jordan in this example), and then look at the interesting or boring object and say, “Jordan, look! A modi! Wow, it’s a modi! Look, a modi! Jordan, look, a modi! It’s a modi!”

Later, the researcher would ask the baby, “Jordan, where is the modi? Can you find the modi? Do you see the modi?” The researchers followed the baby’s gaze and counted how long the baby looked at the objects.

Interesting Trumps Dull

The babies tended to tie the new words with the interesting objects, despite all coaching otherwise.

For example, if a baby was fascinated by the sparkly wand and the adult was talking to them about the boring bottle opener, the babies simply mismatched the words to the wand.

“We found that you could look at one of the objects, pick that object up and even move it, but the baby naturally assumes that the word you’re speaking goes with the object that they think is interesting, not the object that you show an interest in,” Hirsh-Pasek says.

Bottom line: The babies’ interest ruled their word learning, and dull objects didn’t make the cut.

Following Baby’s Lead

Older kids are more influenced by adults’ coaching, Pruden’s team notes.

“Infants attach labels to what they find interesting and not to what the speaker is naming, responding differently than their older counterparts,” the researchers write. They add that babies may gradually pay more attention to adults, developing their word-learning skills over time.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Pruden, S. Child Development, March/April 2006; vol 77. News release, Temple University. News release, Society for Research in Child Development.