Temple Times Online Edition
    MARCH 30, 2006
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Infants learn language as early as 10 months


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

Their findings are reported in a new study 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,” said co-investigator Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Lefkowitz Professor of Psychology and co-director of the Temple Infant Lab at Ambler.

“Ten-month-olds simply ‘glue’ a label onto the most interesting object they see,” added 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, Hirsh-Pasek said.

“Little babies are learning words fast, even at 10 months when they aren’t saying much at all, and that’s huge,” said 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 at around 18 months of age, a child’s focus changes and he or she begins 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,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “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 and Golinkoff, along with Temple psychology alumna Elizabeth Hennon, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Evansville.

- By Preston M. Moretz