Q-ball has started saying "hi" a lot lately, and she typically says it while waving and/or when we move into a new location or something or someone passes us. This is pretty typically of baby's first words- the words are very contextualized. Studies have shown that babies less than one year old can use words like "car," "dog," and "bath." in very specific situations. Piaget noted that, ""an early word like 'mommy' [may] signify (among other things, depending on the context), not a class of objects, but simply that the child wants something." Thus, the baby does not necessarily know that "mommy" is "mommy," but, instead, that it means he'll get something. This line of reasoning seems pretty on track with what I'm currently observing with Q-ball. In addition to hi, she will wail out "mamamamama" a few times a day. It's directed towards me, so I could assume that she's calling me by name, but, really, I think she just wants to cuddle, see something on the counter, or, most likely, nurse.
But, one researcher looked to see if children under the age of one are capable of learning decontextualized words. For his work, the researcher had parents ""train" their children on the words (apple, ball, cup, duck, fish, hat, keys, socks, bird, book, car, chair, coat, dog, shoes, toast) for 10 minutes, 4 times a week using picture cards and board books from 9 months of age until 12 months of age. During testing, the researcher used novel auditory and visual cues (translation: a different picture of the object and a voice that wasn't Mama or Daddy's) and timed the infants' reaction time to determine understanding of the word.
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The experiments revealed two main ideas (might have-read further) : 1) understanding of the words greatly increases from 9 to 12 months, even without training (but slightly more with training) and 2) that a 1-year old can, indeed, learn to understand words out of the context with which he typically knows the word (for this the trained babies did quite a bit better, but we're talking 2 out of 6 words vs. 5 out of 6 words...) It's interesting to note that baby chimpanzees and parrots can still outperform the trained babies linguistically.
Still, the results are not necessarily clear. First of all, what does it actually tell us about the language abilities of infants? The researcher is not sure. He does believe that it signals that the largely accepted belief that baby's abilities to learn new words rapidly improves after 12-months because they have a newly "[attained] insight" into language is not necessarily true. But, he admits that the results of his test could simply be a result of the fact that "trained" babies had actually just been trained to respond to tests. Thus, they actually don't have an understanding of "car," but they know to look at cards. On the other hand, maybe the parents really did teach their babies these 6 words.
So, what do I take from this experiment? Frankly, not much. If you regularly read my blog, you'll likely assume (correctly) that I'm not a big fan of training babies. They have much better things to do- like playing, eating, sleeping, eating, playing, and pooping. Q-ball will learn what a car is- even if it's at 13 months instead of 10 months. And, she'll learn to wave at our neighbor instead of his mailbox. Who cares if it takes an extra two months?
Schafer, G. (2005). Infants can learn decontextualized words before their first birthday. Child Development, 76(1), 87-96.