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Small Talk: How Language Develops

Your Smart Little Baby Knows a Lot More About Her Native Tongue Than You Think!

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Learn what it takes for your baby to get to this milestone.
Small Talk

Even before your baby can say “car” or “juice,” she already knows that some words go together (like “car” and “stroller“) while others don’t (like “stroller” and “milk”). While this may seem like just a funny little factoid, it’s really an intriguing insight into how little ones acquire language.

“They’re very good at [language], and we don’t know how they do it,” says researcher Elika Bergelson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, NC. She adds, “Within a year or two, they’ve figured out a lot about the language that will become their native language.” Just as with other skills, babies learn words under the radar, well before they can actually say anything out loud. And knowing how words relate to each other is an important part of the process.

Looking at Language

Bergelson had already shown in an earlier study that six-month-old babies understood simple, familiar words (like those for food and parts of the body). Now, using eye-tracking cameras built into a hat, she determined that they understand a bit about how words go together too. The cameras helped her see that when babies were shown pictures of two objects, and heard the word for one of them, they’d spend more time looking at the picture if the two things were unrelated—as if to say, “Hmm, one of these things is not like the other!”

“They may not know the full-fledged adult meaning of a word,” says Bergelson, “but they seem to recognize that there is something more similar about the meaning” of some pairs of words. To find out more about how babies match up words with the objects they represent, Bergelson also recorded them at home with their families.

Sure enough, when a baby can see a car at the same time that he hears the word “car,” he has a better understanding of what the word means.

Your Role: Role Model

The best way to help your baby learn language is just to talk to her. You’re like the host of a show, narrating what’s going on all day long: “Now, I’m going to fill up this cup with water for you to drink… Let’s sit on the floor and play with blocks… I think Spot likes to sleep in the warm sunshine.” Use simple, clear language to fill your little one’s ears. Through exposure and repetition, she’s building her word bank. She’ll use it for years to come.

Stumped about what to say? You can:
  • Chat about the weather. There’s no such thing as small talk to a baby!
  • Sing and listen to music together. Songs offer lots of that repetition that’s so useful to a language learner.
  • Read, read, read! Books are a fun and easy way to show your baby the world of words.

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