POST Online Media Lite Edition


Babies learn to talk more from context then repetition

Staff writer |
A small team of researchers affiliated with MIT and Stanford's Department of Psychology recorded every utterance of a single child as he learned to talk undertake a study meant to better understand how we humans learn to speak to other people.

Article continues below

They have detailed what they learned in a paper they have had published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists and parents have been fascinated by the process that goes on when a child learns to talk, it is one of the most important skills children learn but the actual mechanism has been hard to study.

Most parents are not that willing to have researchers hanging around or cameras capturing their private life. That is what made this latest study so interesting, both of the parents of the baby boy involved are language scientists, and both were eager to learn more using their son as the source of a massive set of data.

The parents rigged up their house with cameras and microphones to capture every waking moment of the boy's life, approximately 200,000 hours, starting the moment he came home from the hospital, and keeping it up until he was three years old.

The cameras also captured the parents of course, and their interactions with their son.

Over time, the parents, with assistance from other team members, transcribed the video data into hard facts focusing most specifically on words spoken by adults that the child was able to hear and those words spoken by the child that were then put into a database which allowed for lengthy analyses.

After all that work the researchers came to one grand conclusion: children do not learn to speak words primarily due to hearing words over and over—what really matters, they found, was context.

Thus, if the child heard a word over and over again, always in the same context, he was less likely to start speaking that word than if he heard another word (such as "Momma," the first word he spoke at age nine months) spoken just as much or even less often, but in a wider variety of contexts, e.g. "Smile for Momma?" "Who is Momma?" "Come to Momma."

What to read next

Love for gold starts in infancy
Contrary to beliefs, newborns are not imitating adults
Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in humans