Oh Sugar! Babies learn meaning of words earlier than we first thought

For years experts have thought that babies don’t learn the meaning of words until they are around a year old, but psychologists now believe that babies grasp the meaning of words as young as six months old.

A recent study shows that babies as young as six months can understand a much wider vocabulary, especially if parents speak to them normally from birth. In the past it was thought that babies could understand elements of the language that they hear, but that they couldn’t connect sounds and meanings until much later in the first year of life.

Psychologists Elika Bergelson and Daniel Swingley studied babies aged six to nine months old to see how they responded language and corresponding pictures. The pair discovered that when the babies heard a statement such as, ‘where’s the apple’, the child’s eyes would move to the relevant object on the screen.  During the tests the researchers found that the 33 youngsters tested fixed their gaze more on picture that was being named, than the other images.

Dr Swingley said: ‘There had been a few demonstrations of understanding before, involving words like mommy and daddy. Our study is different in looking at more generic words, words that refer to categories. I think this study presents a great message to parents: You can talk to your babies and they're going to understand a bit of what you're saying. They're not going to give us back witty repartee, but they understand some of it. And the more they know, the more they can build on what they know.’

Dr Bergelson added: ‘we're testing things that look different every time you see them.

Oh Sugar! Babies learn meaning of words earlier than we first thoughtThere's some variety in apples and noses, and 'nose' doesn't just mean your nose; it could mean anybody's nose. This is one of the things that makes word learning complicated: words often refer to categories, not just individuals.

The pair found no improvement in the pattern of learning from six months to nine
months, although at 14 months word recognition jumped forward dramatically.

Dr Swingley said: ‘maybe what is going on with the 14-month olds is they understand the nature of the task as a kind of game and they're playing it. Or the dramatic increase in performance at 14 months may be due to aspects of language development we did not measure specifically, including better categorization of the speech signal, or better understanding of syntax.’

Dr Bergelson added: ‘I think it's surprising in the sense that the kids at this age aren't saying anything, they're not pointing, they're not walking. But actually, under the surface, they're trying to put together the things in the world with the words that go with them.’

Those of you who are prone to the occasional swear word in front of your babies, may have to change what you say to words like Rhubarb, Sugar and bulldozer!