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July 28, 2022

Infant Word Association

Babies are like sponges, constantly absorbing information. But how early do infants begin to learn language, a vital component of an infant's development? What processes do they use and how can parents help? Learn more about important "naming moments" on NSF's The Discovery Files.

Credit: National Science Foundation

Infant Word Association

This is The Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Infants learn the names of objects through a simple process called a "naming moment." A baby is shown an object and told its name at the same time. This process is essential to language development.

But what happens if it doesn't occur in the same moment, when an infant sees an object much more than given its name?

Supported in part by NSF, researchers at Indiana University are studying the important role visual memory plays in learning words and exploring how infants learn by more often seeing objects for which a name is less frequently associated.

The team focused on how infants developed memories for objects and learned that the connection between a thing and its name could come from object-name memories built over time, especially with items they encounter every day.

The researchers also learned that, beyond the fundamental functions of how the brain perceives things, the structure of the environment in which children learn reveals much about what needs to be in place for them to learn language.

The research could lead to earlier and more effective interventions for children with delayed speech and language challenges. It could also assist in the development of new forms of artificial intelligence that do not demand massive data sets for effective machine learning.

Discover how the U.S. National Science Foundation is advancing research at And check out NSF's Discovery Files podcasts, available wherever you get podcasts.

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