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In a recent issue of the journal Child Development, researchers from Temple University found that younger babies learn words for new objects based on how interested they are in the object whereas older babies attach more importance to whether the speaker is interested in the object.

In the study of 10 month-olds, babies were shown a variety of objects – some brightly colored, some blander in design. The researcher would tell the children the names of all the objects. Consistently, the babies would learn the name of the more interesting object, and either point to it or look at it as the word was said, regardless whether or not the speaker tried to influence the child’s choice by manipulating or giving clues about the more boring choices. This shows that infants learn the words for things they find interesting with little regard for what the speaker is doing.

What this means for parents is that we should pay more attention to what infants are interested in and use that information to start a conversation. For example, if your child is attracted to a wind-chime, talk about the object – the colors it’s painted, the material it’s made of, the way the wind has to blow to get it to make the pleasing sound, etc. If this is how children acquire vocabulary, then we should capitalize on their interests and use those opportunities to expand their language base.

“Parents should talk to their babies from early on because that’s the only way infants can learn language. Talking with your children matters, even at the earliest ages,” says Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D., and co-author of the study.

Many people think that until a child can talk, they don’t understand the meaning of words. Unfortunately, this misconception is responsible for children missing out on exposure to huge amounts of vocabulary at younger ages. While a child may have limited expressive language (a child’s use and knowledge of spoken language), they will have tremendous receptive language (a child’s listening vocabulary and knowledge of spoken words) just by being exposed to speech. Children as young as one can be given a simple instruction and carry it out, yet they may be unable to say any of the words in the instruction.

For example, “Teddy, can you bring me your shoes?” Teddy can understand the task, and therefore understands each of the words, yet he may be unable even to say “shoes” at one year.

In toddlers around 18 months of age, there is a subtle shift to accept more influence from others. Babies learn to use the adult’s interest as a guide to learning and older children are more influenced by adult coaching from teachers and parents. This is when we can begin to influence learning and to introduce an expanding set of interests.

Amazing? Not really when you think about how we all learn – interest drives learning for all of us. People choose their majors in college based on what they are interested in, we select books based on our interests, we pursue careers based on what we do well and are interested in. Even the remedial student who has trouble learning, who may even have limited reading skills can be motivated to learn about his interest, in fact, his passions may be the only thing that can get him to pursue information and ultimately, learning.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., study leader for this research project, thinks there is a lesson for parents and educators of children of all ages: “Sometimes we fail to take notice of what our learners are doing and what they’re interested in. We all learn best when things are meaningful.”

Thomas is program leader of Baby Steps to Stronger Big Island Families in Waimea, with Play and Learn groups in Waimea at Waimea Elementary School, and in Honokaa at the North Hawaii Education and Research Center. For more information on the organization, or for a schedule of their activities and events, call 887-1228, or visit