Babies know hundreds of words by the time they speak

October 31st, 2008 - 12:21 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Oct 31 (IANS) Babies are a lot more perceptive than we think, who begin processing language much before they start articulating by 12 months. By then they already know hundreds of words. A study by Pennsylvania University (PU) psychologist Daniel SwingIey said infants have a unique ability to discriminate speech-sound or phonetic differences, but over time they lose this skill for differentiating sounds in languages other than their own.

For example, six-month-old babies who were learning English were able to distinguish between similar-sounding Hindi consonants not found in English, but they lost this ability by the time they were 12 months.

Since the 1980s it has been known that infants start focusing on their language’s consonants and vowels, sometimes to the exclusion of non-native sounds. More recently, researchers have increasingly focused on how infants handle whole words.

Recent research has shown that during infancy, babies learn not only individual speech sounds but also the auditory forms of words; that is, babies are not only aware of the pieces that make up a word, but they are aware of the entire word, said a release of PU.

These auditory forms of words allow children to increase their vocabulary and help them to eventually develop grammar. Although they may not know what the words mean, children at eight months start learning the phonological (sound) forms of words and are able to recognise them - and just being familiar with the words helps increase the children’s vocabulary.

Studies have shown that 18-month-old children who are familiar with a word’s form are better at learning what it means and are also able to differentiate it from similar sounding words.

Knowing word forms may also contribute to children’s inferences about how their language works. For example, 7.5 month olds do not recognise words as being the same if they are spoken with different intonations or by a man and a woman.

However, by 10.5 months of age, babies recognize the same words despite changes in the speaker or the intonation used. Another interesting finding was that although children learning a language can distinguish between long and short vowels, they interpret this difference according to the rules of their language.

For instance, Dutch 18-month-olds considered tam and taam to be different words, while English 18-month-olds did not - showing children’s early learning of how each language uses vowel length.

This new research in language acquisition indicates that infants learn the forms of many words and they begin to gather information about how these forms are used.

The author notes that “these word forms then become the foundation of the early vocabulary, support children’s learning of the language’s phonological system, and contribute to the discovery of grammar”.

These findings were published in the October issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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