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Toddlers can understand words just by hearing them

Press Trust of India  |  Washington 

Toddlers may be able to establish meanings of new words just by overhearing them, scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have found.

Toddlers are able to acquire the meanings of words even when social or visual information is absent, according to new research from Boston University College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College.

The study by Sudha Arunachalam, director of the BU Child Language Lab and assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences builds upon her previous research demonstrating that by age two, toddlers can extract information about a new verb from its syntactic context, even before viewing a relevant event.

These new findings show that children can do so even in an impoverished social context, without discourse context or visual access to the speakers.

"The only information provided was linguistic," said Arunachalam.

"Our goal was to determine whether 2-year-olds, on hearing new verbs in informative sentences, could use their syntactic content alone to map the novel verbs to meaning, even though no social or visual information was available," she said.

Arunachalam and her team presented sentences as ambient noise - meaning toddlers did not have to directly attend to anyone.

Researchers then tested whether the toddlers had learned the word meanings by tracking the children's eye gaze as they looked at potential referents for the verbs.

Findings indicated that toddlers can learn at least some aspects of word meaning from contexts in which they are not directly attending to the conversation around them, without observational or social information for cues.

"What this new research tells us is that toddlers have strong abilities to extract meanings, and not just word forms, from the ambient speech stream," Arunachalam said.

First Published: Sun, November 17 2013. 15:45 IST