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Babies Can Understand Whole Sentences Before They Can Speak

Before uttering their first word, a new study suggests, children can understand what groups of words mean together

In a recent study of 11–12 month olds published in Cognition, researchers found that infants on the verge of saying single words themselves can already process complete sentences such as “Clap your hands.” The research sheds light on the difficulties adults have learning second languages if they focus too intensely on single words:

Dr Barbora Skarabela, of the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Languages Sciences, said: “Previous research has shown that young infants recognise many common words. But this is the first study that shows that infants extract and store more than just single words from everyday speech. This suggests that when children learn language, they build on linguistic units of varying sizes, including multiword sequences, and not just single words as we often assume. This may explain why adults learning a second language, who tend to rely on individual words, often fall short of reaching native-like proficiency in the way they string words together into phrases and sentences.”

University of Edinburgh, “Infants’ language skills more advanced than first words suggest” at ScienceDaily The paper is closed access.

Twenty-three of 36 infants passed the comprehension test. While the researchers don’t spell this out, the study provides evidence that more is going on in a child’s mind at that age than many of us might at first suppose.

Father and child reading story book

A sentence is not just a signal like Hi! “(You) clap your hands” is a complete thought: It is subject-verb-object, in traditional grammar terms. The ability to understand sentences is an essential foundation for higher-order thinking skills.

Other researchers have found that our brains are “prewired” to recognize words:

Humans are born with a part of the brain that is prewired to be receptive to seeing words and letters, setting the stage at birth for people to learn how to read, a new study suggests.

Analyzing brain scans of newborns, researchers found that this part of the brain – called the “visual word form area” (VWFA) – is connected to the language network of the brain.

“That makes it fertile ground to develop a sensitivity to visual words – even before any exposure to language,” said Zeynep Saygin, senior author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

The VWFA is specialized for reading only in literate individuals. Some researchers had hypothesized that the pre-reading VWFA starts out being no different than other parts of the visual cortex that are sensitive to seeing faces, scenes or other objects, and only becomes selective to words and letters as children learn to read or at least as they learn language.

“We found that isn’t true. Even at birth, the VWFA is more connected functionally to the language network of the brain than it is to other areas,” Saygin said. “It is an incredibly exciting finding.”

Jeff Grabmeier, “Humans are born with brains ‘prewired’ to see words” at Ohio State News (October 22, 2020)

The ability to find meaning in words and sentences appears to be innate in humans. But we really do not know how sounds came to contain ideas.

Human language differs from animal and plant communication systems in that it enables a vast transmission of ideas, not just signals or emotions. The ideas are often uniquely expressed:

Human language is amazingly creative. If you make up a sentence of any complexity, and search for that exact sentence on the Internet, it’s almost never there. Virtually everything we say is novel. Yet at the heart of this capacity of ours lies an incredibly simple piece of mental technology: Merge. Merge takes two bits of language, say two words, and creates out of them another bit of language. It builds the hierarchical structures of language.

David Adger, “This Simple Structure Unites All Human Languages” at Nautilus (September 19, 2019)

Recent research highlights the importance of early childhood education — and perhaps of becoming a bit more “child-like” ourselves when learning a new language, that is, putting overall meaning before individual words.

You may also wish to read:

Researchers: Human brains are prewired to recognize words Contrary to what psychologists had supposed, the ability to seek meaning is built in, not taught

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Babies Can Understand Whole Sentences Before They Can Speak