If you have a baby who's learning to talk, you may feel the need to chatter
incessantly to boost her vocabulary, but a new study says another factor is
crucial: the ability to provide non-verbal clues that help an infant figure out
what words mean.
In other words, it's vital to not only talk to babies but also connect the
words you use to the world in which you are using them, the research
The good news is that anyone -- regardless of education or vocabulary level --
can use this approach to teach language to babies, said study co-author Lila
Gleitman, a professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of
Pennsylvania. "If you took the effort to talk to your kid about the
here-and-now, you'd have an impact on how they learn the meaning of words," she
And a better vocabulary, she noted, often translates to more success in
school and in life.
At issue is the way humans learn language, especially as babies when words or
grammar don't make sense. At the very start, a parent needs to do some
world-to-word pairing, linking objects like a cat or a spoon to the word for
each, Gleitman explained.
But one expert added that it's not just a matter of pointing to something and
saying it's a banana or a dog or a couch.
For example, if you point to the sky and say something is an "airplane", the
child might not know if that's the plane or the cloud next to it or a bird
flying above, said Skott Freedman, an assistant professor who studies vocabulary
at Ithaca College in New York. That's where the teaching talent of parents comes
The new study tried to figure out how a parent's ability to provide context
affects a child's vocabulary in the long run.
To do this, the researchers created an experiment aimed at helping them
understand which parents provided more context for the words they spoke to their
kids. They told 218 college students to look at a muted video of 50 parents
talking to their babies, and asked the students to try to figure out the words
the parents were using.
The theory is that the students would detect more words from the silent video
if the parents provided more non-verbal context by, say, pointing at objects
they're talking about to the child.
The researchers then waited three years and analyzed the vocabulary of the
babies, who were initially between 14 to 18 months old.
The results: Kids had bigger vocabularies if the words of their parents were
more decipherable by the college students. This trend wasn't affected by the
education and income of the parents, suggesting that it's not a matter of the
parents simply knowing more words.
What does this mean in the big picture? "There's definitely a message for
parents," Freeman said. "The message is not how much you talk to your
children, it's how you talk to your child."
Study co-author Gleitman put it this way: "Talk to them about the objects and
things you bring to their attention, e.g. 'Look at this strawberry. I see you're
eating your peas, what nice little peas.'"
This simple approach, she said, can make a world of difference.
For more about child
development, try the US National Library of Medicine.