Babies Connect Similar Words By Listening To What We Say
Kara Manke, 23 Nov 17
       

(Credit: Getty Images)

Babies recognize that the meanings of some words, like car and stroller, are more alike than others, like car and juice, researchers report.

By analyzing home recordings, researchers found that babies’ word knowledge correlated with the proportion of time they heard people talking about objects in their immediate surroundings.

“Even though there aren’t many overt signals of language knowledge in babies, language is definitely developing furiously under the surface,” says Elika Bergelson, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

A six-month-old wears a vest with a small audio recorder inside to collect audio data from the child’s perspective. The lab then annotated the audio with information about concrete nouns the child heard. (Credit: Duke)

Bergelson is also the author of a surprising 2012 study showing that six- to nine-month-olds already have a basic understanding of words for food and body parts.

One of these things is like the other

“Even in the very early stages of comprehension, babies seem to know something about how words relate to each other,” Bergelson says.

“And already by six months, measurable aspects of their home environment predict how much of this early level of knowledge they have. There are clear follow-ups for potential intervention work with children who might be at-risk for language delays or deficits.”

To gauge word comprehension, Bergelson invited babies and their caregivers into a lab equipped with a computer screen and few other infant distractions. The babies saw pairs of images that were related, like a foot and a hand, or unrelated, like a foot and a carton of milk. For each pair, researchers prompted the caregiver (who couldn’t see the screen) to name one of the images while an eye-tracking device followed the baby’s gaze.

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