How Do Toddlers Learn New Words?

First Posted: Oct 13, 2015 11:30 AM EDT

When babies begin to speak, their first words are often "mama" or "dada", or some variation of that, but a Florida State professor has taken a deeper look into how children build their vocabularies based on these early learned words, according to a release.

"Children leverage their early world knowledge to help them unlock their language skills," said FSU Assistant Professor of Psychology Arielle Borovsky. "Knowing a few related words helps children recognize links between new word meanings, and this could be a very useful strategy for helping children learn vocabulary early in life. This might be part of the explanation for why children begin to start 'talking up a storm' between the ages of 18-24 months."

Children bounce off of base words, like "mama" and "dada" to learn more words related to the base word. For example, "mama" or "dada" might lead to learning "sister" or "brother." Borovsky uses the example of the word "kiwi," saying that toddlers may know several fruits, like apples and peaches, but not kiwis. However, when they are brought face-to-face with a kiwi, it may be easier to learn the word based on the fruit words they already know.

"Children start to say words somewhere around their first birthday," Borovsky said. "But they're not a random subset of adult vocabulary. They're not learning words like stockbroker or bifocals. That's common sense, but what's really new is that they are learning these words in clusters and there might be some words that are easier for children to learn and some that are harder."

The study, published in the journal Developmental Science, saw researchers study 32 two-year-old children, and how they built their vocabularies. The team worked out of the university's Center for Developmental Science used a computer program that shows images of familiar items to the toddlers, in order to test their knowledge of certain words. They also imposed eye-tracking technology, since toddlers are not always communicative in their recognition, according to the release.

The team also interviewed the toddlers' parents on their language use, and then attempted to teach the children six new words that were somewhat related to words they already knew. These words were categorized broadly, including drinks, fruits, body parts, animals, vehicles, and clothing. The test involved showing the toddlers an image on the screen, and pairing it with verbally stating five sentences that contained the word in question.

"Although each child learned the same six words, we used their individual vocabulary survey to identify which three words they already had many neighbors in their vocabulary, and which three had the fewest," Borovsky said.

After testing the children, Borovsky and her team used the eye-tracking technology to see how well the children understood the new words. The technology measured how quickly and reliably the children looked at pictures of the new objects when the word was heard.

The study found that children recognized the new words more easily when they already new related words. This suggested that by using a child's vocabulary, they could find out which words would be easier or more difficult to learn, based on their age, according to Borovsky.

"To understand what goes wrong, we need to understand how language development works overall," she said. "If we can identify what's going wrong at an earlier stage, we can get these kids working with speech therapists or special education experts quicker."

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