New research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology sheds light on how toddlers learn new words—and it might surprise you!

Researchers from the University of East Anglia investigated how 18- to 24-month-olds learn language. More specifically, how they learn new words in the context of words they already know and words that are new to them.

photo: Daria Shevtsova via Pexels

According to Dr. Larissa Samuelson, from UEA’s School of Psychology, “Previous work suggests that when children hear a word they do not know and an object they have never seen in the context of some objects that they can already name, such as a toy or a ball, they guess the new word refers to the new thing.”

Samuelson went on to add, “We wanted to know if the strength of a child’s knowledge of familiar things, how well they know what ‘cars’ or ‘balls’ are, mattered for learning new words and remembering them.” So what did the researchers find?

photo: RawPixel

After teaching 82 children two new words (“zeb” for a honey-dipper and “yok” for a strainer), they introduced a third new object/word. The researchers then asked the children to get the newest item (a bird toy named “blick”) when it was presented with the “zeb” and “yok,” and again with objects they already knew.

Even though the toddlers were able to link the new word to the bird toy in the presence of the items they already knew, they were also able to do so when the researchers placed the “blick” with the “zeb” and the “yok.”

While this isn’t exactly surprising, the researchers did find that after a five-minute coloring break, the toddlers were better able to remember the “blick” in the presence of the new objects/words. Samuelson said, of the findings, “”We had expected that a stronger knowledge of familiar words would be better for learning new words, but we found the opposite was true.” She went on to add, “It seems counterintuitive, but it is perhaps because the less well-known items don’t compete with the new words as much. If they learn new words in the context of playing with well-known items such as a ball, book or car, they don’t process the new word as much.”

What does this mean for you? According to this study, you might have a new way to teach your tot!

—Erica Loop



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