Feedback and focus are key to learning new words
When babies start babbling, they vocalize phonemes from every major language group around the world. To adult ears it sounds like cute gibberish until the child begins to pare down the number of sounds they’re making, at which point we hear something closer to words. This process of focusing isn’t all on the baby’s shoulders though, as it actually requires feedback loops from the people and environment the baby is in.
In a multi-year experiment, a series of cameras and microphones were installed throughout a researcher’s home in order to record every verbal interaction with a newborn. As the boy grew up and began to learn to speak, researchers were able to mine the mountains of recordings to see what patterns lead to the moment a new word was acquired.
The first pattern was that as a baby hones in on a specific word, attentive listeners are critical to refining babble into a coherent utterance. Adults seemed to unconsciously notice when the baby was in range of a recognizable term, and would adjust their own language to help focus on the word in play, usually through simplifying their own speech patterns. This focused feedback often preceded a new word entering the baby’s vocabulary, even if participants weren’t aware of it.
The other key to the growth of the baby’s vocabulary was situational focus. Ubiquitous concepts like “play” were likely to be referred to in multiple environments and contexts, and thus were slower to be mastered. More narrowly defined concepts, like “breakfast,” would mostly be talked about in proximity to the table, in the morning, and involving food. By being less open-ended, these words could be acquired more easily, regardless of how often the word was actually repeated in any given day.
Refinement not repetition
While these data were based on observations of just one child, they ring true for anyone trying to learn a second language, or even my first grader practicing her reading. Practice can help familiarize you with something, but without feedback and specificity, words and sounds can remain nebulous and hard to grasp. This gap between repetition and feedback was demonstrated back when deaf parents were told to leave televisions on for their hearing children, in hopes that hearing the words from onscreen characters would teach them how to talk. But without the critical feedback loop from a listening participant, hearing the sounds of speaking does little to turn babble into speech.
Source: For kids learning new words, it’s all about context by Laura Sanders, Science News