How Babies Learn Their First Words

Like teenagers, babies don't much care what their parents say.

Though they are learning words at 10 months old, infants tend to grasp the names of objects that interest them rather than whatever the speaker thinks is important, a new study finds.

And they do it quickly.

The infants were able to learn two new words in five minutes with just five presentations for each word and object, said study leader Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University. Importantly, the babies paired a new word to the object they liked best, regardless of what object the speaker referred to.

"The baby naturally assumes that the word you're speaking goes with the object that they think is interesting, not the object that you show an interest in," Hirsh-Pasek said.

The result is not too surprising, Hirsh-Pasek said in a telephone interview. She says interest drives learning for older children, too, and even adults.

She cites six-year-olds she's heard talking knowledgably about baseball players' batting averages. "How in the world do they get it? They're not going to do decimals until 7th or 8th grade."

"Ten-month-olds simply 'glue' a label onto the most interesting object they see," said Shannon Pruden, a Temple doctoral student in psychology and lead author of a report on the findings in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development.

Later, around 18 months, children learn to use the speaker's interest—such as where the eyes gaze—as a guide to learning, the researchers say.

Still, Hirsh-Pasek thinks there is a lesson for parents and educators of children at all ages: "Sometimes we fail to take notice of what our learners are doing and what they're interested in," she said. "We all learn best when things are meaningful."