10-month-old babies learn new words of interesting objects – interesting for them, not for us. Why is it interesting at all?
"Jordan, look! A modi! Wow, it's a modi!
But Little Jordan looks in the other direction…
The words they filter out do not necessarily match the objects. According to Shannon Pruden, a graduate student of psychology at Philadelphia's Temple University, "ten-month-olds simply 'glue' a label onto the most interesting object they see." Once babies are intrigued by an object, it is easier for them to learn the name of it. Just spot the right moment. Otherwise the word you suggest will be tagged on the object in focus for the child, and not on the one you are trying to attract his/her attention.
The study that appeared in Child Development (March/April 2006; Vol. 77, Issue 2.) concludes that even if babies are not speaking, or not much, they rapidly increase their comprehension vocabulary of interest. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, collaborating on the research points out that another important feature of the findings is that "a lot of people weren't even sure that 10-month-olds were paying attention." Now it is scientifically proven that they are mastering language.
The researchers studied 44 babies who were 10 months old, and, according to their mothers, already understood about 14 words. The babies were shown "interesting" and "boring" objects. The interesting items included colourful and noisy objects (a wand and a party clacker), whereas the boring ones (bottle opener and a cabinet latch) were of plain colour and lacking fascinating movements. The researchers first let the babies play with them, and then placed them on a board. They started to teach the names (nonsense words like 'modi' or 'dawnoo') of the objects in turns ("Jordan, look! A modi! Wow, it's a modi! Look, a modi! Jordan, look, a modi!") and with balanced enthusiasm. Then came the testing with the usual "Can you find the modi?" but, not giving a hoot about the trainers' intentions and sweating efforts, the babies gazed at or pointed at the interesting objects. "We found that you could look at one of the objects, pick that object up and even move it, but the baby naturally assumes that the word you're speaking goes with the object that they think is interesting, not the object that you show an interest in," Hirsh-Pasek says. Moreover, when one word has successfully been glued to a flashy-rattling object, and coachers introduced a new nonsense word into the game, but showed no object going with that, babies started to search for a new interesting toy to match it. So babies memorize concepts that are genuinely of emotional relevance to them, they master it quickly, and they are eager to grasp more in a relatively short span of time. But there is no need to despair if the first words later on are not 'ma' and 'pa' but 'dee' for a car. The learning speed gains impetus with time: as children pay more attention to what their partner is saying, i.e. they become more sensitive to social stimulus, the more rapidly they build the vocabulary of their language.
But what are the major steps how infants and children acquire language before they are able to interact with the speaker in a more responsive way? (very roughly and briefly)
The zero stage is before birth, when foetal heart rate test shows variation at different sounds (e.g. decreasing at mother's voice). A few-day-old baby, can not only cry, but can also differentiate between the speech patterns of languages based on the sucking test. By about 4-6 months there is a wide array of babbling sounds that helps babies to manipulate their environment, and they start to narrow down their preference for their own speech patterns and own names, which by 10-12 months means that they filter out sound differences in other languages (if not regularly exposed to one) and establish their own inventories. Having a vocabulary of approx. 50 words is typical at the age of 1, first words being pronounced by 14-20 months of age, but in fact being able to comprehend considerably more.
How much more though? It may depend upon how well we provide a word nurturing environment full of self-driven language development opportunities for babies. It is well worth considering the conclusions of the study, one of which is that babies are capable of picking up four individual new words of four different objects while having a good time playing around on mummy's lap. And it sounds Speedy Gonzales. Pruden's and Hirsh-Pasek's research findings may suggest that if we let the babies induce the focus of attention and propel the language acquisition process with more freedom, we are likely to end up with a bigger passive/ comprehension word inventory than if we stick to what we want the children to master.