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Babies can learn words before their first birthday – University of Reading

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Babies can learn words before their first birthday

Release Date 10 February 2005

mother and childAlthough most parents, educators, and researchers believe that children can't learn specific words until well into their second year, children younger than one year can, in fact, learn certain words for things that are not a regular part of their daily lives, according to new research being published in the January/February 2005 issue of the journal, Child Development. The findings, based on research by Dr Graham Schafer of the School of Psychology, suggest that what is considered a 'formal' learning of a word may be underway long before children say much. "It appears that young children may understand word use more flexibly than scientists and parents have previously thought," said Dr Schafer. The findings call into question earlier beliefs that before their second year most children only learn words for things they are interested in, or when those words are linked to certain routines, such as 'bath', 'car', or 'cat'. To investigate this issue, Dr Schafer asked parents of 52 nine-month-olds to use 12 board books and a set of 48 picture cards depicting common objects like keys, apples, fish, and chairs in simple games with their children four times a week for up to 10 minutes a session. The games were designed to build on the kind of routines parents already used in the home: naming and pointing, sorting, finding the odd one out. No reading was required for either parents or children. After three months, the children, now one year old, received a test of word understanding in which they were shown pairs of pictures and asked to look at one of them based on what the investigator said. For instance, the investigator might say: "Fish, fish! Look at the fish!" Dr Schafer then measured whether the child looked at the correct picture. Children who had been through the training with their parents looked at the correct picture, while a control group of untrained children did not. "This was notable because in the test, the pictures, voices, and the context were all new to the children," said Dr Schafer. "So we can conclude that the children who had taken part in the games with their parents had learned these particular words, and not in a way linked to a special context." The message for parents? "They should be aware that there may be no 'lower limit' to the age at which their children are able to learn new words," said Dr Schafer. "Parents should definitely talk to their young children – even more than they may already do." Dr Schafer's paper Infants Can Learn Decontextualized Words Before Their First Birthday appears in Child Development, Vol. 6, Issue 1. End Contact Information: Andrea Browning Society for Research in Child Development Office for Policy and Communications Tel: +1 202 336-5926 Email:

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