Your baby may only know how to say "ba-ba-ba," but that doesn't mean he can't understand many of the words he hears during a typical day.
Babies between 6 and 9 months of age are capable of understanding the meaning of some spoken words, challenging a long-held belief that this language development milestone is not reached until closer to a child's first birthday, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania.
To give young tots a chance to strut their vocabulary skills, researchers recruited 33 caregivers to bring their children to a lab and complete two different kinds of test. In the first, a child sat on the caregiver's lap facing a screen on which there were images of one food item and one body part. The caregiver wore headphones and heard a statement such as, "Look at the apple," or, "Where's the apple?" and then repeated it to the child. The caregiver also wore a visor to avoid seeing the screen. An eye-tracking device, which could distinguish precisely where a child is looking and when, then followed the child's gaze.
The second kind of test had the same set-up, except that, instead of the screen displaying a food item and a body part, it displayed objects in natural contexts, such as a few foods laid out on a table, or a human figure.
For both tests, results showed the 6- to-9-month-old babies tended to fix their gaze more on the picture named by their caregiver rather than on the other images on display. Researchers say this eye placement on the object indicates that they understood the word.
"I think it's surprising in the sense that kids at this age aren't saying anything, they're not pointing, they're not walking. But actually, under the surface, they're trying to put together the things in the world with the words that go with them," says University of Pennsylvania psychologist and co-researcher, Elika Bergelson, about the study's surprising results (via the UK Daily Mail).
In another surprise for researchers, there didn't seem to be an improvement in language learning and word recognition between age 6 months and 9 months, meaning that word recognition for 6-month-olds in the study was about the same for 9-month-old babies. The next big jump in vocabulary and word recognition appeared to take place at 14 months.
"Maybe what is going on with the 14-month-olds is they understand the nature of the task as a kind of game and they're playing it," the study's other lead researcher, psychologist Daniel Swingley, adds.
Whatever is going on, that old saying, "little pitchers have big ears," may be truer than we thought!