Following on from this post about recognition of first words, this post will look at how infants first understand words.
|She can’t say “Peekaboo,” but she certainly knows what it means!
Early comprehension of words begins at around 7 months for most babies. Many of the words a child first understands will be context-bound, meaning they are only able to understand it in one specific situation. A typical example of this will be the child who happily waves bye-bye to a person at the front door of their house, but not if they’re out and about in the buggy, not when leaving someone else’s house, and not if the person leaving their house says goodbye at the living room door.
It’s difficult to measure how much children actually understand at this age. Most of the studies available rely on parental reporting, and in this sort of situation, parents can often unwittingly over-report. It has been found that many children are responding to things like pointing, gaze, intonation or other cues rather than the actual word being said. Also, at this age babies only really experience language in reference to their immediate surroundings. So you talk to your child about what’s in front of them, what they’re looking at right now; but if you were in the bedroom talking about cows in the field, they wouldn’t understand it.
When children are learning new words, “cue referencing” is really important. This is things like looking and pointing at the object in question when you say its name. Studies have shown that if a parent points to, and names an object, the child will pay it a lot more attention.
At around 12 months, many children will have a vocabulary spurt, where they suddenly understand a lot more words very quickly. This often comes shortly before a spurt in the actual production of words, however many children do not experience either spurt. General consensus is that these spurts are caused by the simple fact that learning words becomes easier, once you’ve already understood some.