Conventional wisdom has it that babies learn their first words by listening to repetitions of those words in different contexts. For example, a child might hear the word ‘doggy’ spoken at home, at the playground, while on a walk, etc, and eventually learn to associate that word with the furry waggy animal that always seems to coincide with that word. However, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and from Harvard say this explanation cannot hold true.
The researchers, led by Lila Gleitman of the University of Pennsylvania claim that it would be statistically impossible to learn new words in this manner. A typical setting, such as a room or a street, has far too many referents that could correspond to the word in question. And in fact, when adults and preschoolers were shown muted film clips of parents speaking to children where only one bleeped or nonsensical target word was audible, none of the participants had much success in identifying what that word might refer to. In other words, it was nearly impossible to guess from context what a word might mean.
In contrast, the researchers suspect that new words are acquired from flashes of inspiration, rather than from cumulative usage. This makes sense if you consider how quickly a young child’s vocabulary explodes once they begin to speak.