WEDNESDAY, Feb. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Babies can understand
many words sooner than they can actually say them, a new study
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say 6- to
9-month old babies learn the meaning of the words for certain foods
and body parts through their daily exposure to language. They said
most psychologists don't think this type of word comprehension is
possible until a child is closer to 1 year.
"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," said the study's co-author, Elika Bergelson, a doctoral student in Penn's department of psychology, in a university news release. "But actually, under the surface, they're trying to put together the things in the world with the words that go with them."
In conducting the study, researchers had 33 babies between 6 and
9 months old view a screen with a picture of a food and a body part
while sitting with their parents. The parents were given phrases to
say to the child, asking them to find the apple, for instance. An
eye-tracking device revealed the babies' responses to the
In a second test, the children went through the same process but
saw pictures of typical food scenes and a whole person, not just
After taking into account possible reasons for errors or
distraction among the babies, the researchers compared the
responses of the 6- to 9-month-old infants with those of 50 other
babies ranging from 10 to 20 months of age.
In both tests, the researchers found the 6- to 9-month-olds
looked more often at the picture that was named than any other
images. The researchers argued this was a sign that they knew what
the word meant.
"There had been a few demonstrations of understanding before, involving words like 'mommy' and 'daddy,'" study co-author, Daniel Swingley, an associate professor in the psychology department, said in the news release. "Our study is different in looking at more generic words, words that refer to categories."
Bergelson added, "We're testing things that look different every
time you see them. There'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 study's authors said babies at 8 and 9 months performed no
better than 6- and 7-month-old infants. They said no significant
improvement was seen until the children reached about 14 months of
age. They could not explain exactly why performance did not improve
for so long.
"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," Swingley concluded. "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."
Their study was published online this week in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information