Research News

Learning New Words? Linguistic Context Is Key For Infants

Early exposure to a rich vocabulary aids in infants’ cognitive development


Click on the image above to see a larger version of the infographic.

How does listening to language impact a child’s cognitive ability? In a recent study, IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman, doctoral student Brock Ferguson, and their coauthor discover that even before infants can speak many words, they use the few words they already know to learn more. The infographic above highlights the results from that study, where the researchers tracked babies’ eye movements to discover how they learn words. Infants listened to a sentence containing a nonsensical (“unfamiliar”) noun they did not know, for example, a “blick.” After hearing this, 19-month-olds were able to connect that noun to a picture of an unfamiliar animal if they overheard the word in an “informative” sentence, as in, “The blick is eating.”

This research underscores the importance of exposing infants to language at an early age. Research has shown that low-income children hear up to 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers—a phenomenon known as the “word gap.” While many programs seek to reduce the gap by focusing on preschoolers, Waxman calls for a focus on infants since her work demonstrates that language boosts fundamental cognitive capacities in infancy.

 Sandra Waxman is Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology, professor of cognitive psychology, and an IPR fellow. For more information, read “Infants use known verbs to learn novel nouns: Evidence from 15- and 19-month-olds,” published in the journal Cognition.