Babies Learn Words Long Before Speaking

In study, 9-month-olds correctly matched up words with pictures

THURSDAY, Feb. 10, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Children less than 1 year old are already learning to match up words with common objects, according to a new study.

In the study, an adult spoke simple words -- "fish" or "apple," for example -- and watched as infants turned to look at images of exactly those objects, indicating they had already learned the word's meaning. Only children who had been exposed to structured language learning through their parents were able to recognize the words, however.

"[Parents] should be aware that there may be no 'lower limit' to the age at which their children are able to learn new words," researcher Graham Schafer, of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, said in a prepared statement.

The study appears in the latest issue of Child Development.

Schafer's findings contradict the current belief held by many educators and researchers that children aren't able to learn specific words until they're well into their second year. He said the findings suggest that what's considered "formal" learning of words may be underway in children long before they actually start to speak.

The study included 52 9-month-old babies. Their parents were instructed to show pictures of common objects such as apples, fish and chairs to the children during simple games four times a week for up to 10 minutes a session.

The games involved naming and pointing, sorting and identifying objects that didn't belong with others.

Three months into the study, the children were given a test of word understanding. They were each shown pairs of pictures and asked to identify one of them based on what the researcher said. For example, the researcher might instruct the child to look at a picture of a fish while holding a picture of a fish and an apple. The children were scored on whether they looked at the correct picture.

The children who'd been through the training sessions with their parents looked at the correct pictures. Untrained children in a control group weren't successful.

"This was notable because in the test, the pictures, voices and the context were all new to the children. So we can conclude that the children who had taken part in the games with their parents had learned these particular words, and not in a way linked to a special context," Schafer said.

Based on the findings, "it appears that young children may understand word use more flexibly than scientists and parents have previously thought," he said. The findings also suggest that "parents should definitely talk to their young children, even more than they may already do," Schafer added.

More information

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association offers tips on how to encourage speech and language development in children.

SOURCE: Society for Research in Child Development, news release, Feb. 10, 2005
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