DURHAM, N. C. — Think babies don’t understand much of what you’re saying to them? Think again. A new study finds that infants as young as 6 months old begin to recognize when words are related or similar to one another, particularly when they can identify people talking about objects within their view.
Researchers at Duke University conducted two related studies with babies and their caretakers, hoping to determine the extent to which the children understood spoken language.
The first study invited selected infants and their parent or guardian into the researchers’ lab, furnished with a computer screen and little else in terms of distraction. Pairs of images — either related (e.g., foot and hand) or unrelated (e.g., foot and milk carton) — were shown to only the infant, as the caregiver was asked to name one of the objects depicted.
Meanwhile, an eye-tracking device — a frequent tool used to evaluate an infant’s comprehension — was used to examine each infant’s length of gaze at the items.
The researchers found that babies tended to spend more time gazing at the named image when it contrasted with the other object presented, signaling some form of linguistic recognition.
“They may not know the full-fledged adult meaning of a word, but they seem to recognize that there is something more similar about the meaning of these words than those words,” explains Elika Bergelson, the study’s lead author, in a university release.
Bergelson’s second study entered the dwelling of each infant and caretaker, equipping the latter with small audio and video recorders to help provide her team with insight into real-world settings.
Analyzing the different aspects of speech to which the infants were exposed, the team’s findings were fairly unequivocal.
“It turned out that the proportion of the time that parents talked about something when it was actually there to be seen and learned from correlated with the babies’ overall comprehension,” Bergelson says.
In other words, immediacy and relevance were key in helping infants fully comprehend the dimensions to a given item. Bergelson explains that by telling a baby, “here is my favorite pen,” while holding up the actual pen, the child will begin to understand more about pens. Whereas should a parent say, “tomorrow we are going to see the lions at the zoo,” the infant lacks the visual to help them grasp the concept of the lion or the zoo.
Experts warn parents shouldn’t necessarily change the way they speak to their infants — more work needs to be done to understand if there’s more to a baby’s ability to learn language than meets the eye.
“Before anyone says ‘this is what parents need to be doing,’ we need further studies to tease apart how culture, context and the age of the infant can affect their learning,” warns Sandra Waxman, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University who was not involved in the study, but applauds the researchers for discovering “an exciting first step” in identifying how humans learn language.
Nevertheless, talking to your baby as regularly and consistently as possible could be considered a wise — and harmless — approach.
“They are listening and learning from what you say, even if it doesn’t appear to be so,” Bergelson reminds.
The researchers published their findings last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.