Boys SmilingThere is a difference between the way an 18-month-old baby and a 36-month-old toddler learn language, finds new research from the University of Missouri (MU). The study is among the first to describe how children learn new words before entering school. The results indicate that babies’ language learning abilities improve over with age. The findings could help parents and speech-language professionals support children struggling to learn vocabulary.

The researchers tested the language learning abilities of children aged 18 to 36 months. Using three types of cues, the research team taught the children six new words each day. The researchers recorded the children’s attempts to accurately guess what words meant. They also tested the children’s abilities to recall the previous day’s words.

As toddlers age, their ability to accurately guess the meaning of new words improves. Infants between 18 and 30 months are able to guess the meaning of new words, but toddlers aged 24 to 36 months demonstrate a much stronger ability to acquire new words. As children aged, they became better at learning new words from linguistic context. They could identify that a word like “kiwi” in the sentence “Sammy eats a kiwi,” must be a food. Children also improved in selecting objects that correspond to new words. When presented with a familiar object and an unfamiliar object, older children were better at assigning the new word to the unfamiliar object. Accurately learning words from social cues, like gaze, decreased as children age. Younger children were better at learning new vocabulary based on where a speaker’s gaze was directed.

Toddlers have a limit to how many words they can effectively learn in one day. When testing recall for the previous day’s six words, the toddlers were only able to recall for the first three.

Parents can help children learn more words by providing a word-rich environment. “When you’re working with young children who are learning language, it’s important to talk to them all the time and label everything in their environments. At home, parents can name household items or food items the children are eating. If out on an excursion, such as a trip to the zoo, parents can label the animals they see,” explained Judith Goodman, associate professor in the MU School of Health Professions and Cahir of the Department of Communication Science and Disorders.

This research is published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

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