Babies can learn new words if they are associated with objects that catch their attention, researchers at the Infant Lab at Temple University in Philadelphia have found.
"They hear every word," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University. "And they are also paying attention to the things that are interesting to them."
Previous studies showed babies as young as 10 months old may understand about 10 words. But Infant Lab researchers wanted to figure out how these infants actually learned words. So they tested more than 75 babies, showing them a series of objects and attaching made-up names to them. They would ask the babies questions, and then track their eyes to gauge their responses.
So, could the babies remember the names? They found infants could pair words with objects. But they also discovered babies only associated the new words with the objects that caught their attention -- flashy, interesting objects. They did not associate words with the more boring, dull objects.
For parents, the message in all this is that very young children are listening and learning language. And they learn about the things that specifically interest them.
Twins Mark and Anita Farrell took part in the study when they were 10 months old, and their mother, Penni Farrell, took home what she learned about baby behavior.
"I decided to go out and buy a couple of books that had more colorful images, words, things that would draw their attention," she said.
Researchers say parents should follow a baby's lead.
"At 10 months of age, when we capitalize on what babies are interested in, babies learn more than when we try to direct their attention to things that they are not interested in," said Roberta Golinkoff, director of the University of Delaware Infant Language Project.
Another lesson for parents, researchers say, is to talk with your children starting at a very young age, and make sure that conversation is about something your child finds interesting.