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Listen Up! (24 months)

**How young children learn new words through overhearing**

Have you ever wondered how kids pick up so many words that you never used when talking to them? Words that you may want them to learn or not J. Not all cultures speak directly to their children as much as American mothers, so there must be other mechanisms through which children learn language. Researchers have examined this in toddlers to see how kids learn new words by overhearing them while playing with a toy.

Materials

  • A confederate, i.e., a friend you can talk to so that the child has a conversation to overhear
  • Four unfamiliar objects, that is, objects that you know your child does not know how to label.  In the study they used: a wallpaper roller, a noisemaker, an oddly shaped yo-yo, a small wooden toy made of two connected disks, etc.
  • A bucket that the four objects fit in
  • One nonsense word: dax
  • A toy to distract the child. In the study, they used a pop-up toy like this one so that it required the child’s attention to manipulate it.

pop-up dinosaur

Procedure

For the scenario, set the child with the toy about 1 meter away from where you and the confederate will play a game.  Tell the child that he is waiting his turn.  Do not make eye contact with the child as you go through the objects one by one with the confederate.

Choose one of the objects to be the target object. You will pull that one out of the bucket second and will introduce it with the nonsense word.  While the child is playing with the toy nearby, go through the following dialogue (in an excited voice) with the confederate three times:

– Say “I’m going to show you what’s in here. Want to see what’s in here? I’ll show you what’s in here.”  Pull the first object out of the bucket. Let the confederate hold it and then put it back in the bucket.

– Say “I’m going to show you the dax. Want to see the dax? I’m going to show you the dax.” Pull the target object out of the bucket. Let the confederate hold it and then put it back in the bucket.

– Say “I’m going to show you what’s in here. Want to see what’s in here? I’ll show you what’s in here.”  Pull the third object out of the bucket. Let the confederate hold it and then put it back in the bucket.

– Say “I’m going to show you what’s in here. Want to see what’s in here? I’ll show you what’s in here.”  Pull the fourth object out of the bucket. Let the confederate hold it and then put it back in the bucket.

After going through this object-finding routine three times, you do one round of this with the child, but do not give the nonsense word when you take the target object out of the bucket; just introduce it in the same way as the other objects.

Then, during the comprehension phase, place all four of the objects in random positions on a tray and ask the child to show you the dax.

Notes & Observations

What did you observe?  Was your child engaged with the toy? Did your child learn the new word through overhearing despite being distracted?

Research Findings & Extension

The researchers found that 24-month-old children could reliably choose the target object when asked to show them the “dax”.  They also ran a condition of the study where children were not given a toy to distract them and they learned the new word through overhearing equally in both scenarios.  The researchers analyzed videotapes of the research sessions to track the children’s attention during the task, and interestingly, the children tended to shift their attention to the adults’ conversation when they heard an unfamiliar word used before the target object was shown. This suggests that children are actively trying to gather information, such as mapping new words to objects.  The findings inform us about how children learn outside of direct conversation.

Reference:

Akhtar, N. (2005). The robustness of learning through overhearing. Developmental Science, 8, 199-209.

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