This is how children learn to name their surroundings
When does a child know that a table is a table? A study provides new insights into how memory is formed – and how children can connect words with things.
Whe children associating words with objects for the first time is largely unknown. But this ability is crucial for later language development. A study by researchers at Indiana University Bloomington now sheds light on how the little ones reach this milestone in human development. The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Before they can speak, infants between the ages of seven and eleven begin to associate the words they hear with everyday objects. Developmental psychology has always tried to explain this phenomenon with so-called “naming moments”. The assumption: Children learn by hearing and seeing names and objects at the same time.
But in everyday life, words are rarely mentioned exactly with the associated objects. This can be a problem for the little ones. This is because the brain’s hippocampal memory system, which can produce memories of individual events, may not yet be fully developed in infants. Probably they can no longer remember the objects and their names a little later.
“Our study shows that a different perspective may be needed to explain how infants create these connections,” said Elizabeth Clerkin, one of the researchers. “We focus on understanding how infants develop their memory for objects and categories.” The results of the study suggest that early language acquisition is associated with memory representations that build up over time – rather than repeated connections between them, words and objects.
In their study, American researchers analyzed how infants encounter things in their environment. They used 67 hours of video footage from 14 infants aged between seven and eleven months. The kids were picked up again and again during the meals.
“When researchers think about how infants manage to learn words, they have traditionally focused on internal cognitive mechanisms,” says study leader Linda Smith, professor of psychology and brain science and also involved in the work. The learning environment must also be examined. “It will tell us more about what needs to be in place for children to learn languages.” It can also help clinicians design interventions for children who are too late to speak.
Learning object names ultimately corresponds to a memory system that functions in the brain’s neocortex, according to Smith. This is already functional in childhood and builds memory content over a long period of time. Words could be better integrated into memory when existing memories are reactivated by new information. That is, once “table” is said, babies are more likely to remember it when they hear it in the context of visual memories of a table.
Researchers call this the two “experience time scales.” They found that this is how children create their first connections between words and objects. “The idea is that over long periods of time, memory traces of visual objects slowly build up in the neocortex,” says Clerkin.