Linda Smith and Chen Yu of Indiana University Bloomington propose the theory that 12- and 14-month-old children accumulate data in a "system" approach to language learning.
"This new discovery changes completely how we understand children's word learning," Smith said in a statement. "It's very exciting."
In an experiment, Smith and Yu showed 12- and 14-month-old toddlers two objects at a time on a computer monitor while two pre-recorded words were read to them. No information was given regarding which word went with which image. After viewing various combinations of words and images, however, the children were surprisingly successful at figuring out which word went with which picture.
Yu and Smith said it's possible that the more words toddlers hear, and the more information available for any individual word, the better their brains can begin simultaneously ruling out and putting together word-object pairings, and learning what's what.
The findings are published in the journal Cognition.
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