Babies say what they see for first words
A child’s first word is much more likely to be something they see than repeating words that they hear, the study found.
Visual memory could be the key to babies associating words with objects, such as ‘table’, ‘bottle’ or ‘spoon’, explaining why everyday items feature in their earliest words.
Researchers from Indiana University believe their findings could explain why children who are late talkers actually struggle with visual processing.
Professor Linda Smith, a study senior author from IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department, said: “We think that children’s first words are predictable based on their visual experience with objects and the prevalence of those objects in their visual world.
“Visual memory may be the initial key to getting words stuck on objects, familiar visual objects like table, shirt, bottle or spoon.
“It’s an aggregated experience. Those very first words may be learned, slowly and incrementally, for a few visually pervasive objects.
“This may be how infants begin to break into language before their first birthday.”
Five girls and three boys, aged between eight and 10 months old, wore head-mounted cameras to observe their daily activities, so scientists could see their field of vision and observe their mealtimes.
They looked at 917,207 mealtime frames, with one image sampled every five seconds, and five objects recorded for each frame.
The study’s results revealed a strong correlation between the most frequently appearing objects and ‘first nouns’ such as table, shirt, chair, bowl, cup, bottle, food, spoon and plate.
First nouns are usually spoken by half of all 16-month-olds, while the scientists’ definition of early nouns are known by half of all 30-month-olds and late nouns are acquired at later stages of learning.
Elizabeth Clerkin, a PhD student and first author of the study, said: “The comparison of first and early nouns was particularly striking, since both sets of object names are acquired quite early in childhood and refer to objects common in households with infants.
“That infants’ visual environment during mealtime consistently involves a very small number of objects, and the names of these high-frequency objects are among those normally learned first by infants, suggests visual experience is doing the heavy lifting in very early word learning.”
Although many researchers have studied infants’ first words to understand learning, Prof Smith said none have approached the question from the visual side, which could help children with delayed speech and other language disorders.
Prof Smith said: “Difficulty learning words could stem from visual processing problems.
“Children who are late talkers have slow or age-delayed visual processing skills for objects, for example.
“Children with autism have object-processing problems as well.”
“Taking account of the visual brings a whole new dimension of word-learning into view, if all you ever worry about is the word side of word-learning, you may be missing half the problem: visual cues that aid language learning.”
The theory, dubbed the ‘Pervasiveness Hypothesis’, was published in the journal of the Royal Society Philosophical Transactions.