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Watch parents with tiny children at the zoo. They hold a baby up so she can see, mom or dad points a finger and says, “Look! Look at that bear.” That’s good. Conversation is good. Pointing is helpful. But what’s more helpful is doing more than just naming.

In a study at Northwestern University reported in the journal Cognition, toddlers whose parents told what the pointed-to thing was doing understood the name of that thing better. Saying, “Look! Look at that bear walking around” helps a child know what, exactly, you’re talking about.

Your own experience with preschool children bears this out. My grandkids often say, “Look at that, Grandma!” and point out the window… but I have no idea what I’m supposed to see.  It wouldn’t help me much if they said, “Look at that blick, Grandma!” because I wouldn’t know what a “blick” is. But if they said, “Look, Grandma! Look at that blick flying in the sky” I would know what to look for and I’d know what to call it.

The amazing thing is that toddlers think exactly the same way. They use clues embedded in our conversations to figure out the meaning of a new word.  It takes longer and is harder to learn a word just from the word alone.

This is why board books that tell stories provide a richer language experience than board books that depict just a single picture on a page with a single word identifying it. A story about a ball, bouncing down the roadway and bumping into a duck,  is more interesting and develops more language than a photo of a ball, followed on a later page by a photo of a duck.

Notice that telling what the unfamiliar thing is doing is key. Just saying “Look at that bear over there” doesn’t help too much. Over where?  Which of the many things in the direction you’re pointing do you mean? Linking the new word to a verb – to what is happening – gives a baby the information he needs.

According to the study’s author Sandra Waxman, “This shows how attuned even very young infants are to the conversation around them. It also shows how well infants build upon what they do know to build their vocabulary.” It also reinforces the importance of talking a lot with babies, even though it seems that they cannot possibly understand.

Babies understand more than we think and they figure things out better than we imagine. Talk with your baby and tell him exactly what’s going on.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.