Language: What Do Babies Really Understand?

Have you ever talked to a baby like they hear and can understand everything you are saying to them? You probably think it’s all just fun and games, but you might be surprised to find that they can!

Well, ok, maybe they cannot understand everything, but according to Athena Vouloumanos, an assistant professor of psychology at NYU, infants understand a lot more than we ever thought possible.

Vouloumanos recently published a study in the journal: Developmental Psychology, which reveals that babies can differentiate between speech and other sounds at the early age of nine months old.

In this particular study there were two actors each trying to perform a simple task while the infant was watching. The first actor was able to easily accomplish the task; while the second was not.  In one scenario, after the second actor was unable to perform the task he would communicate with the first actor using words and he would try again. In another scenario, the second actor would communicate with the first actor using coughing sounds before attempting to perform the task again.   Then the second actor would attempt to perform the task one final time.  In certain scenarios he would successfully perform the task and other times he would not.

The interesting results revealed that the infants actually looked longer and expressed confusion when the second actor failed to perform the task after communicating with the first actor using words or speech as opposed to the scenario when he used coughing or sounds.

The study is fascinating because it suggests that babies know about our internal state.  “If infants understand that speech can communicate intentions, when the first person used speech and the second actor fulfilled intentions, that should be how the story ends. It shouldn’t be that interesting, so they shouldn’t look too long,” Vouloumanos said. “But when the story doesn’t have a congruent ending, the infants think that it’s wrong, and they look longer.”

As Vouloumanos stated, “It shows that infants aren’t limited to what’s in the here and now. They can learn about things that may happen in the future or happened in the past.”

If we now know that infants understanding of their environment is not just limited to the present, that opens up all kinds of possibilities for further understanding.  So next time you are talking to your little one you might think twice about what you are saying!