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Study Challenges Prevailing Theory: Infants Grasp Language Through Overhearing Conversations

Published on Thu Aug 10 2023Nino! | Thomas Quine on Flickr Nino! | Thomas Quine on Flickr

Infants who receive little direct speech from caregivers are still able to understand many words, according to a new study published as a preprint on the PsyArXiv server. The researchers conducted experiments with infants in an indigenous Tseltal-speaking community in Southern Mexico, where it is common for infants to be carried on their mothers' backs and overhear conversations. Using a gaze-tracking method, the researchers found that Tseltal infants exhibited implicit knowledge of high-frequency nouns, similar to Western infants. They also showed comprehension of honorific terms used to greet adults in their community, which they could only have learned through overhearing. These findings challenge the prevailing theory that infants primarily learn language through direct, child-directed speech. Instead, they suggest that infants can adapt their learning strategies to the language available in their environment, including speech that they overhear. The study highlights the importance of considering different cultural and environmental contexts in understanding language development in infants.


Written by Ruthe Foushee (Harvard University) Mahesh Srinivasan
Tags: Psychology | Psychology:Developmental

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