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Baby Talk

By Alex StoneMarch 25, 2005 6:00 AM


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Adults are getting smarter about how smart babies are. Not long ago, researchers learned that 4-day-olds innately understand addition and subtraction. Now, University of Reading research psychologist Graham Schafer has discovered that infants—typically considered prelinguistic—can learn words for uncommon things long before they can speak. “They may not be saying much, but they probably understand a lot more,” Schafer says. He found that 9-month-old infants could be taught, through repeated show-and-tell, to recognize the names of objects that were foreign to them, a result that challenges the received wisdom that, apart from learning to identify things common to their daily lives, children don’t begin to build vocabulary until well into their second year. “It’s no secret that children learn words, but the words they tend to know are words linked to specific situations in the home,” explains Schafer. “This is the first demonstration that we can choose what words the children will learn and that they can respond to them with an unfamiliar voice giving instructions in an unfamiliar setting.”

Figuring out how humans acquire language may shed light on why some children learn to read and write later than others, Schafer says, and could lead to better treatments for developmental pathologies such as autism and Williams syndrome. What’s more, the study of language acquisition offers direct insight into how humans learn. “Language is a test case for human cognitive development,” says Schafer. But overzealous parents itching to bust out flash cards should take note: Even without being taught new words, a control group caught up to the other infants within a few months. “This is not about hothousing or advancing development,” he says. “It’s just about what children can do at an earlier age than what theorists or educators have often thought.” 

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