Babies learn words differently as they age (research)

Learning words is genetic influenced but new research shows the process of learning words also changes as babies age. Researcher has found that toddlers learn words differently as they age, and a limit exists as to how many words they can learn each day. These findings could help parents enhance their children’s vocabularies and assist speech-language professionals in developing and refining interventions to help children with language delays.

In Flanders Kris Van den Branden had some critical thoughts (in Dutch) on this research. In the study, researchers taught six new words to children, who ranged in age from 18 to 36 months, using three types of cues. The cues were presented alone or in pairs, and the researchers recorded the children’s ability to accurately guess what the words meant.

Judith Goodman, an associate professor in the MU School of Health Professions and chair of the Department of Communication Science and Disorders states on the research, “We found that babies’ abilities to accurately guess the meaning of new words increases between 18 and 30 months of age, and by 24 to 36 months, toddlers are able to accurately guess the meanings of new words at a significantly higher level. Interestingly, we observed that even from the time children mature from 18 to 30 months of age, the cues toddlers use to learn new words change.”

The words were actually non-existent and the situation was experimental. Van den Branden describes the research as forcing the babies to learn, while babies often learn from their natural environment.

This is of course a limitation to this (and many other) research. Still, these findings could help parents enhance their children’s vocabularies and assist speech-language professionals in developing and refining interventions to help children with language delays.

Abstract of the research:

Purpose: The authors of this study examined whether the type and number of word-learning cues affect how children infer and retain word-meaning mappings and whether the use of these cues changes with age.

Method: Forty-eight 18- to 36-month-old children with typical language participated in a fast-mapping task in which 6 novel words were presented with 3 types of cues to the words’ referents, either singly or in pairs. One day later, children were tested for retention of the novel words.

Results: By 24 months of age, children correctly inferred the referents of the novel words at a significant level. Children retained the meanings of words at a significant rate by 30 months of age. Children retained the first 3 of the 6 word-meaning mappings by 24 months of age. For both fast mapping and retention, the efficacy of different cue types changed with development, but children were equally successful whether the novel words were presented with 1 or 2 cues.

Conclusion: The type of information available to children at fast mapping affects their ability to both form and retain word-meaning associations. Providing children with more information in the form of paired cues had no effect on either fast mapping or retention.

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