'Ums' and 'Ahs' Help Toddlers Learn Language

Pauses, stumbles in speech can help children learn new vocabulary, study finds.

ByABC News
April 13, 2011, 4:19 PM

April 14, 2011— -- "Look at the, uh, zebras, honey," a mom might say to her 2-year-old during a visit to the zoo. While the stumble or hesitation may seem like the most unimportant part of the conversation, it can play a major role in the toddler's language development.

So says a new study from the University of Rochester published in the journal Developmental Science. Researchers found that young children used those "ums" and "uhs," technically known as speech disfluencies, to acquire new words.

"Around the age of 2, kids start being able to use speech disfluencies to anticipate what the speaker is likely to talk about," said Celeste Kidd, the lead author of the study.

Kidd, a fourth-year doctoral candidate specializing in language development and attention in infants and children, said people mostly use such sentence fillers when the word being sought is not used often or has not yet come up in the conversation.

"Perhaps the most important aspect is that the study shows it's not just the words toddlers are attending to, but it's these nonlinguistic cues as sources of information," said Kidd.

The study included 16 children between 18 and 30 months old. As the researchers did their work, the children sat on their parents' laps in front of a screen with an eye-tracking machine. On the screen, two images appeared: One was a picture of a familiar item, such as a car or book, and the other was a made-up image with a made-up name, like "biffle" or "spad."

A voice recording then talked about the objects in simple sentences. When the voice stumbled and said, "Look at the, uh ..." the children turned their eyes to the made-up image 70 percent of the time.