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Tag Archives: language development

Think twice (19-22 months)

**How children update their mental representation of an object**

Many studies have looked at how children learn about the world from what they observe, but how do children come to learn from what others tell them?  Going one step further, when does the ability to learn new information about objects that aren’t even present emerge? This would involve bringing to mind a mental representation of the object and incorporating the new information into your understanding of, for example, what it looks like.  Researchers examined this question in a study that looked at the emergence of young children’s ability to update their mental representations of an object based on information given by an adult when the object was in another room (Ganea et al. 2007).   The two ages examined, 19 and 22 months, span the time when this ability comes online.


  • Two identical stuffed animals (e.g., two green frogs)
  • One different stuffed animal (e.g., one pink pig) to be a distractor
  • One bucket of water
  • Three aluminum trays
  • A confederate


Start by showing the child the three stuffed animals and introduce one of the two identical ones with a proper name (e.g., Lucy). Show the child the other identical toy but do not name it and then set it aside. Finally introduce the different toy as a friend and then allow the child a few minutes to play with the named toy and the different, distractor toy.  Check that the child learned the name for the target animal (e.g., by putting them both down and asking the child to “get Lucy”).

Then put the three animals away (e.g., in a basket) and leave the room with the child.  While looking at a book with the child, the confederate should enter carrying a bucket of water and say that she planned to wash something (e.g., a table) in the other room (where the toys are).  After 2 minutes, the confederate should return and say: “I’m so sorry! I was washing the table, and I spilled water all over Lucy. Lucy is wet now! She’s covered with water” (Ganea et al., p. 736).  You can then say to the child, “Oh no, did you hear that? Lucy got wet! She’s all covered in water. Do you want to go see Lucy? Let’s go see Lucy!”

In the test phase, when the child re-enters the first room, she will see the three stuffed animals on the three trays.  One of the identical toys and the different, distractor toy should be wet.  The trays should be arranged such that the different wet toy is on its tray between the trays with the wet target toy and the dry identical toy.  Ask the child to show the target animal: “Which one is Lucy? Show me Lucy.”

Notes & Observations

What did you observe? Which toy did your child choose? The child should choose the wet target toy if she has updated her mental representation from the information given by the confederate. However, she might choose the dry identical toy if she had not updated her representation of “Lucy” or the different wet toy if she was just interested in a wet toy.

Research Findings & Extension

The researchers found that 22-month-olds reliably chose the wet target animal greater than chance whereas 19-month-old children seemed to choose randomly between the wet and dry versions of the stuffed animal. Thus, children’s ability to update a mental representation of an object with new information that they hear about but don’t see happen emerges around this age.  This capability opens the doors for learning all sorts of information indirectly and remembering it going forward.


Ganea, P. A., Shutts, K., Spelke, E., & DeLoache, J, S. (2007). Thinking of things unseen: Infants’ use of language to update object representations. Psychological Science, 18(8), 734-739.


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.


  • 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


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.


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

Pick This, Not That (30-36 months)

**How children use rules to learn the meanings of new words**

 How can children learn new words so quickly?  Do they have some way to match new objects to new words that they hear and will they resist giving an object two names?  Many psychologists have studied what they call the “mutual exclusivity” bias where children learning new words avoid giving an object they already know another name and instead assign a new name to a novel object.  Below I describe one of the first studies to show this learning mechanism: Markman & Wachtel (1988).


  •  Six familiar objects, that is, objects that you know your child knows how to label. In the study they used: a banana, a plate, a cup, a spoon, etc.
  •  Six unfamiliar objects, that is, objects that you know your child does not know how to label.  In the study they used: a cherry pitter, a lemon wedgepress, tongs, an odd shaped container, etc.
  •  Six nonsense words.  Researchers use a variety of words that are novel to children to test out their theories of word learning.  For example, you can use:  fep, bleen, dorn, febbit, blick, and plog.


Sit on the floor across from the child.  Tell the child, “I’m going to show you some things and ask you to pick some. Listen carefully and give the best answer you can.”  Place a pair of one familiar object and one unfamiliar object in front of the child.  Ask him to “Show me the X” using one of the nonsense words from your list and record which object your child picks.  Do not provide any feedback.  Continue this process with the next five pairs of familiar and unfamiliar objects, using a different nonsense word for each pair.

Notes & Observations

What did you observe? Did your child pick the novel object when you asked to see the “fep” or other novel word?  What do you think he would have done if you said “show me one”?

Research Findings & Extension

The researchers found that when asked to pick the object referred to by the nonsense word, children picked the unfamiliar object on almost 5 out of 6 trials.  This was more often than expected by chance; in contrast, they chose randomly in the condition where the researchers asked the children to “show me one.”  Thus, the children were not just gravitating toward the unfamiliar object; the presence of the novel word compelled them to pick the novel object.  The paper goes on to test many different variations, including how children attribute novel words to parts of objects.  Others have looked at bilingual children and how they suspend this bias, since they, of course, need to assign two words to each object, one in each language.


Markman, E.M. & Wachtel, G.F. (1988).  Children’s use of mutual exclusivity to constrain the meanings of words.  Cognitive Psychology, 20, 121-157.