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Babies can understand meaning of words from 6 months - study

New research indicates that infants as young as six months can understand the meaning of full words – twice as early as previously believed.

Image: Kitt Walker via Creative Commons/Flickr

BABIES CAN UNDERSTAND basic words from as young as six months – twice as early as previously thought – according to the results of a new study.

Infants usually say their first full words at around one year, however researchers at the University of Pennsylvania now believe that their understanding of language is quite sophisticated from about six months – the time at which most babies begin to babble.

Graduate student Elika Bergelson and psychologist Daniel Swingley monitored 33 infants aged 6-9 months and 50 children aged 10-20 months as part of the study. The babies were placed on their mother’s lap in front of a computer screen connected to an eye-tracking device, and shown various images.

Researchers then monitored the infants’ gaze after their mothers said words like ‘banana’ and ‘nose’ and found that babies aged as young a six months looked at the corresponding images of food and body parts for a substantial amount of time when those items appeared alongside other objects on the screen.

Bergelson and Swingley say this indicates the babies’ understanding of spoken words, and that “even young infants learn ordinary words through daily experience with language”.

“This surprising accomplishment indicates that, contrary to prevailing beliefs, either infants can already grasp the referential intentions of adults at 6 months or infants can learn words before this ability emerges,” they said.

They concluded that learning vocabulary and the sound structure of spoken language go “hand in hand” as language acquisition begins – in contrast to the widely accepted view that infants begin learning their native language by discovering features of the speech signal (consonants, vowels, and combinations of these sounds) rather than full words.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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