Nav: Home

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017

DURHAM, N.C. -- The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

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

Bergelson is 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. In a new report, her team used eye-tracking software to show that babies also recognize that the meanings of some words, like car and stroller, are more alike than others, like car and juice.

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

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

The study appears the week of Nov. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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 were shown 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, the caregiver (who couldn't see the screen) was prompted to name one of the images while an eye-tracking device followed the baby's gaze.

Bergelson found that babies spent more time looking at the image that was named when the two images were unrelated than when they were related.

"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," Bergelson said.

Bergelson then wanted to investigate how babies' performance in the lab might be linked to the speech they hear at home. To peek into the daily life of the infants, she sent each caregiver home with a colorful baby vest rigged with a small audio recorder and asked them to use the vest to record day-long audio of the infant. She also used tiny hats fitted with lipstick-sized video recorders to collect hour-long video of each baby interacting with his or her caregivers.

Combing through the recordings, Bergelson and her team categorized and tabulated different aspects of speech the babies were exposed to, including the objects named, what kinds of phrases they occurred in, who said them, and whether or not objects named were present and attended to.

"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 said.

For instance, Bergelson said, if a parent says, "here is my favorite pen," while holding up a pen, the baby might learn something about pens based on what they can see. In contrast, if a parent says, "tomorrow we are going to see the lions at the zoo," the baby might not have any immediate clues to help them understand what lion means.

"This study is an exciting first step in identifying how early infants learn words, how their initial lexicon is organized, and how it is shaped or influenced by the language that they hear in the world that surrounds them," said Sandra Waxman, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University who was not involved in the study.

But, Waxman cautions, it is too early in the research to draw any conclusions about how caregivers should be speaking to their infants.

"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," Waxman said.

"My take-home to parents always is, the more you can talk to your kid, the better," Bergelson said. "Because they are listening and learning from what you say, even if it doesn't appear to be so."
-end-
This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (T32 DC000035, DP5-OD019812, HD-037082).

CITATION: "The Nature and Origins of the Lexicon in Six-month-olds," Elika Bergelson and Richard Aslin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nov. 20, 2017. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1712966114

Duke University

Related Language Articles:

How effective are language learning apps?
Researchers from Michigan State University recently conducted a study focusing on Babbel, a popular subscription-based language learning app and e-learning platform, to see if it really worked at teaching a new language.
Chinese to rise as a global language
With the continuing rise of China as a global economic and trading power, there is no barrier to prevent Chinese from becoming a global language like English, according to Flinders University academic Dr Jeffrey Gil.
'She' goes missing from presidential language
MIT researchers have found that although a significant percentage of the American public believed the winner of the November 2016 presidential election would be a woman, people rarely used the pronoun 'she' when referring to the next president before the election.
How does language emerge?
How did the almost 6000 languages of the world come into being?
New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.
Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.