Long before their first word, babies understand what you’re saying earlier than you think

EDINBURGH, Scotland — One of the joys of life is watching babies express excitement over all the new things they encounter. While infants may seem out of the loop until they starting speaking, a new study finds babies begin understanding what’s going on a bit earlier than most people may think. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh say infants are capable of recognizing word combinations and phrases long before they ever utter their first word.

Their findings reveal 11 to 12-month-old infants, who are on the verge of speaking, are already processing and understanding various “multi-word phrases” such as “clap your hands.”

This is the first time ever researchers have demonstrated that young infants are capable of recognizing and understanding such statements before they begin speaking themselves. Moreover, this work disputes the long-held belief that babies generally learn languages by first understanding individual words and moving on to sentences. This new study suggests babies learn words and phrases simultaneously.

“Previous research has shown that young infants recognize many common words. But this is the first study that shows that infants extract and store more than just single words from everyday speech. This suggests that when children learn language, they build on linguistic units of varying sizes, including multiword sequences, and not just single words as we often assume,” says Dr. Barbora Skarabela from the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Languages Sciences, in a university release.

Does this explain why it’s hard to be bilingual?

On an especially fascinating note, researchers also say these findings may provide an explanation as to why adults have so much trouble becoming bilingual.

“This may explain why adults learning a second language, who tend to rely on individual words, often fall short of reaching native-like proficiency in the way they string words together into phrases and sentences,” Dr. Skarabela adds.

Researchers studied 36 babies during this project, via a series of “attention tests” featuring recorded audio from adults. Study authors watched closely as the babies listened to the recordings and looked out for any signs of understanding or acknowledgment. All of the recorded phrases only featured three words and many were consistent with a typical “conversation” between infants and adults.

The team then assessed infant responses and compared them using a method called central fixation. This approach allowed researchers to measure the babies’ looks and eye glances in response to the recordings. Using this strategy, they successfully determined when a baby recognized a familiar phrase like “clap your hands” in comparison to a sentence they had likely never heard before — such as “take your hands.”

Most of the infants (23 out of 36) displayed clear signs of understanding certain phrases.

The study is published in Cognition.

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