In a paper they published in the Journal of Child Language, it was found that babies bring with them an innate ability to identify the breaks between words—a crucial skill when learning a language. Measuring this ability can lead to identifying upcoming speech and language problems for the child.
Meanwhile, the researchers also found the most effective way for parents to help their young children learn language. Talking early and often to a baby is valuable, just as conventional wisdom has shown for decades, but so too is repetition of words.
Simply repeating a word over and over is not beneficial. But if parents (particularly mothers) make an effort to use a certain word in a variety of contexts, that helps the child acquire language.
The research involved tracking children from 7 months of age to 2 years, evaluating the language interactions they had with their mothers. Some of the babies were more adept at differentiating between words. Those children were able to pick up language quicker than their cohorts.
It’s thought to be the first study that looked at babies’ skills before they start to truly acquire language, and how those skills mesh with the way their mothers interact with them.
“We figured while we had these families, why not look at both the parents and the kids? … After all, babies aren’t going to drive themselves to the clinic,” study co-author Nan Bernstein Ratner told the University of Maryland Diamondback student newspaper. “It’s interesting because we can look at an 8-month-old and now make an educated guess about where they’ll be at 2 years in terms of language abilities.”
These findings could lead to more effective, earlier language screenings for babies. It can also lead to better education for parents on how to best interact verbally with their children.
“We can tell parents they should continue to talk a lot around their children, but if they want them to learn, it’s not just about the number of words they’re saying, but the repetition of words that is really important,” Ratner said.