Babies Learning Words on the Edge

A new study shows babies memorize first and last syllables.

79072185New research from the journal, Child Development, offers insight into how babies acquire language. The article, “Verbal Positioning Memory in 7-Month-Olds,” posits that word “edges” are the most important word parts for language acquisition.

The researchers invented an unstressed, five-syllable word and played an audio recording of the word with video of an animated puppet as the 7-month-olds sat on their caregivers’ laps. First the infants learned the word and associated it with the puppet. Using an eye tracker and video recording, researchers were able to determine if the babies recognized the word as they swapped around syllables. When babies heard the recognized word, their eyes searched for the animated character on the side of the screen where it had previously appeared. When the word was unrecognizable, they did not search.

Interestingly, the tiny subjects recognized the words when the edge syllables were the same but the middle syllables where switched around, and never when the beginnings or endings of the words were changed. The report concludes that infants are able to encode the edges of words accurately, while the middles of words are not memorized in order (i.e. some young English speakers say aminal for animal). The researchers argue that this phenomenon is not a limitation to lexical learning, but “another feature of human memory that interacts with the language acquisition device.”