Language development: This is how children learn to name their surroundings

Sciences language development

This is how children learn to name their surroundings

Intern / Axel Springer Academy of Journalism and Technology

Even before children learn to speak, they can customize things Even before children learn to speak, they can customize things

Even before children learn to speak, they can customize things

Source: Getty Images / Image Source / Sydney Bourne

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When does a child know that a table is a table? A study provides new insights into how memory is formed – and how children can associate words with objects.

WWhich children associate words with objects for the first time is largely unknown. But this ability is essential for later language development. A study by researchers at Indiana University Bloomington now sheds light on how youngsters reach this milestone in human development. The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Before they can speak, babies between the ages of seven and eleven months begin to associate the words they hear with everyday objects. Developmental psychology has long attempted to explain this phenomenon with so-called ‘naming moments’. Assumption: Children learn by hearing and seeing names and objects at the same time.

However, in everyday life, the exact words are rarely mentioned with the objects associated with them. It can be a problem for the little ones. This is because the brain’s hippocampal memory system, which can form memories of individual events, may not be fully developed in infants. Presumably, they were no longer able to remember things and their names soon after that.

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“Our study shows that a different perspective may be needed to explain how children make these connections,” says Elizabeth Clerkin, one of the researchers. “We focus on understanding how children develop their memory of objects and categories.” The study results suggest that early language acquisition is linked to memory representations that build up over time — rather than repeating connections between words and objects.

In their study, American researchers analyzed how children experience things in their environment. They used 67 hours of video footage from 14 infants aged seven to eleven months. Babies were repeatedly picked up during meals.

“When scientists think about how children are able to learn words, they traditionally focus on internal cognitive mechanisms,” says study leader Linda Smith, a professor of psychology and brain science who is also involved in the work. The learning environment should also be examined. “This will tell us more about what needs to be provided for children to learn the language.” Doctors can also help design interventions for children who have delayed speaking.

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According to Smith, the names of the learning object ultimately correspond to a memory system operating in the neocortex of the brain. This actually works in childhood and builds up memory content over a long period of time. Words can be better integrated into memory when existing memories are reactivated by new information. That is, once “table” is said, children are more likely to memorize it when they hear it in the context of the visual memories of the table.

The researchers call this the “two time scales of the experiment.” They found that this is how babies make their first connections between words and objects. “The idea is that over long periods of time, memory traces of things visible slowly accumulate in the neocortex,” Clerkin says.

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