Babies Understand More Than You Think

by Cassandra R. Elias

Bergelson Swingley StudyAlthough they can't say the words yet, young babies understand what you're talking about. A new study has found that infants as young as six months can understand words being spoken to them.

Every parent knows their bright-eyed babe associates the words mommy and daddy with the correct person, maybe even before they can sit up or reach out to that parent.

Now a team from the University of Pennsylvania says that six- to nine-month old babies learn the meaning of the words for certain foods and body parts through their daily exposure to language.

Up until now, It was believed that infants between 6 and 9 months were busy learning about the sounds of their native language. Most psychologists believed babies didn't understand what words meant until closer to a their first birthday.

University of Pennsylvania psychologists, Elika Bergelson and Daniel Swingley put this belief to the test. They invited caregivers and babies to the lab and showed that babies could actually understand words with two simple tests.

In the first, babies sat on a caregiver's lap facing a screen showing images of one food item and one body part (see picture above). They were prompted with statements like "Where is the apple?" or "Which is a leg?" An eye-tracking device followed the child's gaze.

The second test was similar but the screen displayed objects in natural contexts, such as a few foods laid out on a table, or a human figure.

In both the two-picture and scene tests, the researchers found that the 6- to 9-month-old babies fixed their gaze more on the picture that was named.

Did the caregiver coach the baby's response? Probably not. They wore a visor so they couldn't see the screen. Those babies did it all on their own!

"I think this study presents a great message to parents: You can talk to your babies and they're going to understand a bit of what you’re saying," Swingley said. "They're not going to give us back witty repartee, but they understand some of it. And the more they know, the more they can build on what they know."

Help Your Baby Learn About Language

Babies learn language by hearing you talk and by practicing the sounds they hear. These games and activities can help turn baby babble into first words:

Talk to Your Baby

Do you feel silly talking to your tiny tot? You might not get an answer your question yet, but your baby listens and puts the things in the world together with the words that go with them.

Repeat That Sound

Play language "games" with your baby. When she makes a sound, repeat it and add a new sound. Take turns "talking." Smile at her. Sing to her. Recite nursery rhymes. Play Pat-a-cake.

Read Together

Even before he can understand the story, he hears the sounds. Sharing a book helps build a lifelong love of reading.

Interact in Real Time

Experts recommend kids under two skip the TV or videos. Babies learn language best from real, live people. "Canned" TV sounds aren't the same.

Can You Hear Me?

Have your baby's hearing screened. Your baby may need a specialist's help if a hearing problem exists.

Go Bilingual

Teach multiple languages early. If you'd like your child to speak more than one language, start early! Children growing up in bilingual homes often speak both languages fluently.

How does your baby show that words make sense? Let us know!

About the study: Bergelson, Elika and Daniel Swingley, "6- to 9-Month-Olds Understand the Meaning of Many Spoken Words," February 13, 2012, "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences." The study tested 33 six-to-nine-month-olds and 50 children from 10 to 20 months completed the same tests to see how their abilities compared with the younger group.

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