A baby’s first words are most likely based on their visual experience, say scientists who found that how often infants see familiar objects like table, shirt, bottle or spoon may predict which words they will learn first. The researchers suggest new possibilities for the treatment of children with language deficits and autism. Drawing on theories of statistical learning, they found that the number of times an object enters an infant’s field of vision “tips the scales” in favour of associating certain words with certain objects.
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“We think that children’s first words are predictable based on their visual experience with objects and the prevalence of those objects in their visual world,” said Linda Smith from Indiana University (IU) in the US. “Visual memory may be the initial key to getting words stuck on objects – familiar visual objects like table, shirt, bottle or spoon,” she said. “It is an aggregated experience; those very first words may be learned slowly and incrementally – for a few visually pervasive objects. This may be how infants begin to break into language before their first birthday,” said added.
The study’s results could also help inform interventions for children with delayed speech and other language disorders. “Difficulty learning words could stem from visual processing problems. Children who are late talkers have slow or age-delayed visual processing skills for objects, for example. Children with autism have object-processing problems as well,” Smith said.
Researchers looked at videos that showed the visual field of eight children five girls and three boys – between eight and ten months old, the period before children engage in verbal interactions with parents and caregivers. The videos came from head-mounted cameras worn by the children an average of 4.4 hours. Caregivers were told the cameras would observe children’s daily activities, not words or objects specifically. Caregivers could choose when to activate the camera.
For the purpose of the study, researchers observed mealtime scenes, defined as any eating by anyone at any time or location in cars, at playtime or in a high chair. The recordings yielded 9,17,207 mealtime frames, with one image sampled every five seconds. Five objects were recorded for each frame: a total of 745 objects.
Using an accepted method to index child vocabulary, the researchers then divided the named objects into “first nouns,” which are acquired by half of all 16-month-olds; “early nouns,” which are known by half of all 30-month-olds; and “late nouns,” which are acquired at later stages of learning.
First nouns include words such as table, shirt, chair, bowl, cup, bottle, food, spoon and plate. The findings showed a strong correlation between the most frequently appearing objects and “first nouns,” with the top 15 of these words appearing in the images collected by the study. The study appears in the journal of the Royal Society Philosophical Transactions B.