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Infants Use Verbs They Know to Learn New Nouns

Babies learning speech figure out what an object is by listening to others talk about what that object does. Christie Nicholson reports


When babies learn to talk, they pay close attention to grammar. Specifically verbs. A new study shows that hearing what an object does is how they learn what an object is.

Researchers showed infants between 15 and 19 months of age pairs of images on a screen. Each pair included an animal and a non-living object.

Then the screen went dark and the infants overheard a conversation that included a nonsense word: “blick.” Some babies heard a sentence with an action verb like, “The blick eats.” Others heard a sentence like “The blick is over here,” with no action verb.

The infants then again saw the screen with an animal and an inanimate object. And a researcher said, “Look at the blick.” Infants who had heard the active sentence looked more often and longer at the animal, compared with those who had heard the sentence lacking any action. Because if all the babies know is that “the blick is over here,” it could be any object, alive or not. The study is in the journal Cognition. [Brock Ferguson, Eileen Graf and Sandra R. Waxman, Infants use known verbs to learn novel nouns: Evidence from 15- and 19-month-olds]

The researchers say that learning language requires the infant to listen to natural conversations and to analyze the complex situations being discussed. Such as why the blick forgot to pick up the mooshlik on the way home from work.

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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