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60-Second Mind

Our Uhs and Ums May Help Children Learn Language

We think we should remove any ums and uhs when we talk, especially when teaching children language. New research finds that such pauses may be useful. Christie Nicholson reports


"Uh, we'll be um right back um after, um this message."

Now does that sound like a pro speaker? It's better to remove ums and uhs right?—so we’ve been told all our lives.

"We'll be right back after this message."

Well not always, according to new research in the journal Developmental Science. [Celeste Kidd, Katherine White and Richard Aslin, Toddlers use speech disfluencies to predict speakers’ referential intentions] When it comes to teaching our toddlers how to speak uhs and ums help the child to focus on words that follow.

Researchers studied children between the ages of 18 and 30 months as they sat on their parents’ lap in front of a monitor. The screen displayed two images. One was familiar, such as a   banana, and the other an abstract made-up object. A recorded voice said things like: I see a banana, or There is uh, um, uh a banana. When the voice stumbled, children who were more than 24 months tended to look at the made-up object more often than at the familiar object. Because children who’ve reached that age understand that uhs often precede unknowns.

Not that, uh, you’d want to, uh, riddle your um sentence with, uh, uhs. But on your next trip to the museum with the little one, it’s ok if you point to a skeleton and say, "Oh, that’s an uh, uh um, a velociraptor!"

—Christie Nicholson

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