Babies Understand When Words are Related

Tuesday, November 21, 2017
 
A new study by lead author Elika Bergelson is being reported in a number of media outlets, including The AtlanticReutersThe GuardianInternational Business Times; Science News; and Duke Today.
 
Bergelson's lab used eye tracking data to show that babies understand that the meanings of some groups of words, such as "juice and milk," are more alike than other groups, such as "juice and car."
 
The research  paper combines two approaches: measuring what infants know in the lab with eyetracking, and measuring what their environment is like with audio and video recordings taken in the home. The research sought to answer two main questions: 
 
1) Do babies have know that words (and/or the concepts that go with them) are related to each other during the earliest stages of word knowledge?
 
2) Are there aspects of the home environment that can be detectably linked to infants' early receptive vocabulary?
 
For the first question, researchers found evidence that infants are sensitive to how words and concepts connect to each other: when infants heard a sentence labeling one of two images on a display, infants did a better job looking at the correct image when the two images were unrelated (like juice and nose) than when they were related (like juice and milk).
 
For the second question, researchers found that the proportion of time parents spend talking about objects that are visible and attended to correlated with overall comprehension in the lab experiment at six months.
 
"This work is a first step in understanding the nature of infants' early word knowledge, and how it ties to their environment," Bergelson said. "By building on this work (with larger and more representative samples, and further studies) we can start to take steps to identify language delays and deficits earlier, and hopefully, more effectively."