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.