Learning Language: The Best Way Toddlers Comprehend Verbs

First Posted: Jun 11, 2014 03:36 PM EDT

For toddlers, learning basic words and the beginnings of sentence structures starts a whole new world into language. A new study, published in the journal Language Learning and Development, examines how "packaging" certain verbs into sentences can play a key role in influencing a child's vocabulary.

As previous studies have demonstrated the success of novel verbs in a child's learning, study authors Sandra R. Waxman, Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University and Sudha Arunachalam, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern, said that much of how they are presented encourages this learning.

In a series of experiments, researchers introduced toddlers to six different novel verbs presented in one or two sentences of varying complexity. Some heard the verb in a single sentence that also included two nouns.

Others heard the verb in simpler constructions that were familiar to nouns mentioned in one sentence and the new verb in another. Afterward, both groups watched a short video that involved a scenario with the verbs. Lastly, there were also shown pictures in similar circumstances: one that involved a different action and one that involved a performance of the target action.  

Findings revealed that only toddlers who heard the verb in the same sentence with both nouns were able to successfully identify the target action.

"The results offer two insights," Arunachalam said, in a news release. "First, by age two, toddlers have the remarkable ability to learn new verbs with very little exposure and apply them in novel contexts. Second, presenting the verbs in complete sentences supports the toddlers' abilities to do so. These findings highlight the positive impact that rich communication can have on two-year-olds' burgeoning linguistic abilities."

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