Your Child's Brain in Week 74
You know by now that even if your toddler isn't jabbering away like a big kid, he's quickly picking up on the names and concepts that surround him in his world. It's a skill that we, as grown-ups, take for granted. Let's say a friend shows you three musical instruments: two you're familiar with, the other you're not. The two you know are a flute and a guitar. Your friend starts talking about the three instruments, calling the unknown one a dulcimer. Right then you know its name and will call it that if ever you see one again. Through a process of elimination you've deciphered the instrument's name. By 17 months, children begin utilizing this same skill when learning language.
What the Research Shows
In a research setting, children between the ages of 14 and 18 months observed two computer monitors. Each one simultaneously displayed familiar objects, either a cup, ball, or car. Sometimes an unfamiliar image—a small film canister, an item today's toddlers don't likely recognize—would also appear. Sometimes the cup appeared on one monitor and the ball on the other. Other times the car appeared on one monitor and the film canister on the other.
Each time an object appeared on screen, a voice would announce it. For example, the voice might say, "Look at that cup. Cup!" Most of the children looked at the cup. They did the same for ball and car. However, when the car and the unfamiliar film canister appeared, the voice said, "Look at the dax. Dax!" How the children responded to the new name of this unfamiliar object depended on their age: The younger children (around 14 months) tended to look at the car; the middle group (around 16 months) either looked at the car or the "dax"/ film canister). Only the older children (around 17 months) looked correctly at the "dax."
The study revealed that around 17 months, children employed a process of elimination strategy when learning words. It's as if the child is thinking, "I know what a car is, so that other object must be a 'dax'—even if I don't understand what a 'dax' is."