Your Baby can Read Your Mind

Have you ever wondered how your baby learns the meanings of words? For most people, the answer will probably be ‘no: Because word-learning comes so naturally to children, few of us ever stop to think just how difficult it is. To get an idea, think back to the last time you were in a country where you didn’t speak the language. How many words did you manage to learn by listening to the natives? One? Two? None? This is exactly the scenario faced by children. In fact, at least as an adult you have the advantage of knowing something about how words work. For example, you know that the word for “car” doesn’t change depending on the colour of the car. Babies don’t.

Why is word-learning so easy for children when it is so difficult for us? You might imagine that children’s advantage comes from the fact that parents deliberately teach them words. However, this idea quickly breaks down. For example, suppose you point to a cup of juice and say “this is a cup”. How does the child know that the object is called a “cup” as opposed to a “this” or an “is a”? Even if you just say “cup”, how does the child know that “cup” means “cup” as opposed to “look”, “juice”, “finish your drink”, “orange”, and so on? An even if this teaching method did work for object names like “cup”, it wouldn’t work for most other types of word. How would you teach children the meaning of “idea”, “noisy”, “the”, “this”, or “a”? In fact, this idea of “teaching” words to children is pretty much the preserve of middle-class westerners; in some cultures, adults rarely speak to children at all.

So how do children figure out what word goes with what? Research suggests that they do so by using some pretty impressive “mind reading” abilities. Thinking back to the cup example, the way children seem to solve the puzzle is by figuring out what the adult is trying to do with her language. If the adult’s intention is to make the child finish the drink (e.g.., she picks up the cup and holds it to the child’s mouth), then whatever she says probably means something like “drink it!”. If the cup is empty and one of a series of objects that the adult picks up whilst producing a word, then her intention is probably to label the object, and whatever she says probably means “cup”.

These mind-reading abilities have been demonstrated in a number of ingenious experiments. Children hear a new (made up) word such as blicket, and have to figure out what it refers to, out of a number of possible options. In one study, for example the child was given one toy play with whilst the experimenter looked into a bucket containing a different toy. The experimenter then looked into the bucket and said “modi”. The question is, which object did the child think was the modi: the object that the child had been playing with when she heard the word modi, or the object that the speaker had been looking at as she produced the word? From around the age of 18 months, children were able to figure out that the speaker’s intention was to label the object that she herself had been looking at, not the child’s object. Interestingly, children with autism – who are known to struggle particularly with understanding the intentions of others – perform poorly at this task, and sometimes associate the word with their own toy. There is anecdotal evidence of this happening in real life. One child apparently called saucepans “Peter eaters” because his mother had been reciting the nursery rhyme Peter Peter Pumpkin eater whilst handling a pan.

In another study, two-year-old learned a game that involved a new toy (for which they didn’t already have a name) and a new action (spinning this toy using a turntable). After a few runs through the game, the experimenter said simply to the child “Widgit, Jason” (or whatever the child’s name was). The question was whether the child would interpret the experimenter’s utterance as a label for the toy (i.e., give me the widgit) or the new spinning action (i.e., widge it! using the turntable). The answer is that children used their mind-reading abilities to figure it out. If the experimenter looked back and forth at the child and the toy, children assumed that her intention was to label the object, and so picked up the “widgit” and handed it to the experimenter. If the experimenter looked back and forth at the child and the turntable, children assumed that her intention was to request the action, and so proceeded to “widge it”.

Many parents get the feeling that their children somehow know what they’re thinking. These studies demonstrate that – in a sense – they do, and that it is this incredible ability that helps children take their first few steps in word-learning.

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5 Responses to Your Baby can Read Your Mind

  1. redpeffer says:

    I was interested to read this. I asked my 14 month old a question, to which he nodded for yes and shook his head for no. I wasn’t really expecting to get a response, but I talk to him all the time. I repeated the question as I was so surprised as it was quite a complicated one for him to understand.
    It is easy to forget how early understanding comes, as opposed to communicating through speech.

  2. lystramaisey says:

    Hello there, this is really interesting. I often wonder how my toddler not only picks up words but concepts and more abstract ideas like words which describe emotions or something like thinking. Fascinating!

  3. I love your blog! To build on your aside about autism, though, recent studies have shown a more complex picture than described in your post.

    1) Autistic kids whose parent labels an object they’re already paying attention to both understand and say more words later on than those whose parents “proceed as normal,” assuming their child is paying attention to what they are. In other words, autistic babies don’t shift their attention to what their parents are paying attention to very easily, but it doesn’t hurt their language development if parents compensate for it. (Given all the studies about autistic peoples’ difficulty moving their eyes and attention, this could as easily be an *attention* problem as an *intention problem).
    * Siller & Sigman 2002-The behaviors of parents of children w/autism predict the subsequent development of their children’s communication. J. of Autism & Devopmental Disabilities 32:2, 77-89
    * Siller & Sigman 2008-Modeling longitudinal change in the language abilities of children with autism: Parent behaviors & child characteristics as predictors of change. Dev Psych 44:6, 1691-1704
    * Haebig, McDuffie & Yoder 2013-Parental verbal responsiveness & language development in toddlers on the autism spectrum. J. of Autism & Devopmental Disabilities
    * McDuffie & Yoder 2010-Types of parent verbal responsiveness that predict language in young children with ASD. J. of Speech, Language & Hearing Research 53, 1026-39

    2) Even in some studies that don’t manipulate attention to make the word learning task easier, autistic kids still learn words like “modi” just as well as typically developing kids with similar language abilities. At the group level, they seem to be able to learn the words the experimenter is paying attention to, not just the words they themselves are.
    * Bani Hani, Gonzalez-Barrero & Nadig 2012-Children’s referential understanding of novel words & parent labeling behaviors: similarities across children with & without ASDs. J. of Child Language Dec. 2012
    * Barcus 2011-Vocabulary acquisition through fast mapping in children with autism. Thesis.
    * Bean 2010-Word learning in children with ASDs: the role of attention. Thesis.
    * McDuffie, Yoder & Stone 2006-Labels increase attention to novel objects in children with autism & comprehension-matched children with typical development. Autism 10:3, 288-301

    That said, they don’t do well in some studies, & there are some differences in how they assign meaning to new words. It just isn’t a clear-cut “intention reading” issue:
    * Parish-Morris et al 2007-Children with autism illuminate the role of social intention in word learning. Child Development 78:4, 1265-87
    * Gilga et al 2012-Gaze following, gaze reading, & word learning in children at risk for autism. Child Development
    * Tek et al 2008-Do children with ASDs show a shape bias in word learning? Autism Research 1, 208-22
    * Walton & Ingersoll 2013 Expressive & receptive fast-mapping in children with ASDs & typical development: the influence of orienting cues. Research in ASDs 7, 687-98

    3) Some of these studies even find that autistic kids are following a “speaker’s direction of gaze” rather than “own direction of gaze” strategy, which contradicts both of our points.
    * Luyster & Lord 2009-Word learning in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Dev. Psych 45:6, 1774-86
    * Luyster 2007-Word learning in children with ASDs. Thesis.

    None of this rules out that autistic kids could be learning new words equally well by using different cues. And it does underscore your point about the importance of babies paying attention to the same things as their caregivers. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for all those references – very interesting (I should be more careful with my asides). I know the “pumpkin eater” story is a bit anecdotal; I didn’t realise so much proper research had been done into this issue. I’d always had a sneaking suspicion that autistic kids are less impaired at word-learning that a strong Tomasello-style social-pragmatic account would seem to predict – and it seems that some of the studies you mention likely support this view – what do you think?

      • Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? I think you’re right, there are certainly delays but the process for autistic kids seems to be much like that for non-autistic language-delayed kids.

        Absolutely. The way I understand the studies is, social attention helps babies learn language, but isn’t the only learning strategy babies have; problems with social attention don’t always stop babies from learning language, and they also aren’t the only reason autistic babies have trouble learning language. Does this make sense, given the research you know? Also, it does seem likely that language and social abilities correlate in general and in atypical populations (like autism & Williams Syndrome), so there’s probably an interesting relationship there.

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