A new study has found babies can understand simple phrases before they can speak.
Scientists believe the data will challenge ideas about how children learn language, after discovering 11-12-month-old children can already process a sentence such as “clap your hands” before they have uttered a word themselves.
It has now been suggested that babies can learn individual words at the same time as more complex sequences of words, and this is happening months before parents will hear their children attempt to speak in sentences.
“Previous research has shown that young infants recognise many common words,” said Dr Barbora Skarabela, of the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Languages Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.
“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.”
Linguists from the University of Edinburgh assessed the language learning behaviour of 36 infants during several attention tests, during which the babies listened to a recording of an adult speaking.
During the tests, the babies’ response to different three-word sentences was measured, to see if they could distinguish between common phrases such as “clap your hands” and less frequent sentences including “take your hands”. For 23 of the infant participants, longer fixation times were recorded for the common phrases, suggesting the babies recognised the sentence.
Experts believe this could explain why adults who learn a new language later in life find it more difficult if they only focus on single words.
Researchers from the Hebrew University also contributed to the study.