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Babies Learn Words Differently as They Age

Study says babies learn words differently at different ages
Photograph by Getty Images

Believe it or not, that 18-month-old of yours is learning an average of two to five new words every day. (All the more reason to be careful what you let slip around the house.) According to a new study, we're really just starting to understand the speed at which kids learn language through the next phase—those pivotal preschool years.

University of Missouri researcher Judith Goodman decided to look into it all recently, and came back with some interesting findings. As it turns out, they get to be pretty smart cookies, the older they get.

"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," said Goodman, who is both an associate professor in the MU School of Health Professions and chair of the Department of Communication Science and Disorders. The study was published earlier this month in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

However, the number of words a toddler can learn in a given day does have its limit, and the way in which they learn them is different than that of younger babies.

"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," Goodman said.

During the study, researchers sat down with children ranging in age from 18 to 36 months, and taught them six new words using three different types of cues. These cues were presented either alone or in pairs, and the sessions were recorded so that researchers could later examine each child's ability to guess the meaning of a new word.

"When children were presented with a new word and asked to choose between an item for which they already had a name and an unfamiliar object, they appropriately assigned the new word to the unfamiliar object, and this ability improved as children aged," Goodman said. "The toddlers’ ability to infer a word’s meaning from linguistic context, such as figuring out that a ‘kiwi’ must be a food item when they hear, ‘Sammy eats the kiwi,’ also improved as the children aged. However, using social cues, such as eye gaze, became less effective as the children matured. By 36 months of age, children were less likely to assume a word referred to the particular object a speaker was looking at—looking at a kiwi when teaching the child the word ‘kiwi’—than younger children were."

So what does all this mean? Goodman says these findings could help parents boost their kids' vocabs as well as help speech-language therapists develop interventions to help those with language delays. Kids who are struggling to master new words may actually benefit from the types of cues we give them.

“When you’re working with young children who are learning language, it’s important to talk to them all the time and label everything in their environments,” Goodman said. “At home, parents can name household items or foods the children are eating. If out on an excursion, such as a trip to the zoo, parents can label the animals they see.”

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