Infants learn language as early as 10 months

Infants are listening and learning their first words as young as 10 months, but they are only learning the words for objects that are of interest to them, not for objects of interest to the speaker, according to researchers at Temple University, University of Delaware and University of Evansville.

Their findings are reported in a new study, “The birth of words: Ten-month-olds learn words through perceptual salience,” being published in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development (Vol. 77, Issue 2).

In their study, the researchers showed infants two separate objects–one “interesting” and one “boring” in order to teach infants new words. The researchers examined whether 10-month-olds are guided by how much they like an object (i.e., perceptual cues) as well as which object the speaker with them is naming (i.e., social cues) to learn a new word.

At 10 months, before they say much of anything, the researchers discovered that the infants were truly capable of learning two new words in a single session. Using a measure of word comprehension (rather than expecting babies to say the word), they found that infants paired a new word to the object they liked best, regardless of which object the speaker named.

“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,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Lefkowitz Professor of Psychology and director of the Temple University Infant Lab, and one of the study’s co-investigators.

“Ten-month-olds simply ‘glue’ a label onto the most interesting object they see,” adds Shannon Pruden, a doctoral student in psychology at Temple and the study’s lead author. “Perhaps this is why children learn words faster when parents look at and name the objects that infants already find interesting.”

According to the researchers, these results have huge implications for parents and caregivers. They suggest that babies are listening into our conversations and trying to learn words well before they can say them. The findings also suggest that when we speak to our infants, we should talk about things that they like, not what we like.

As parents and caregivers, we must be sensitive and responsive to infants’ interests as they don’t have the flexibility to adopt our interests, says Hirsh-Pasek.

“Little babies are learning words fast, even at 10 months when they aren’t saying much at all and that’s huge,” says co-investigator Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education at Delaware. “So, parents should talk to their babies from early on because that’s the only way that infants can learn language. They should also talk about what the baby is interested in.”

The researchers added that around 18 months of age, a child’s focus changes and they begin to learn words differently, using the speaker’s interest as a guide.

“The 18-month-old is a social sophisticate who can tap into the speaker’s mind and the vast mental dictionary that the adult has to offer,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “At 10 months they just cannot take the speaker’s perspective into consideration.”

The study, which was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, was done in collaboration between Hirsh-Pasek, Pruden, Golinkoff, along with Elizabeth Hennon, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Evansville.

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff are co-authors of six books, including Einstein never used flashcards: How our children REALLY learn and why they need to play more and memorize less (2003) and How babies talk: The magic and mystery of language acquisition (1999).

From Temple University

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