(Photo: Trei Brundrett via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Photo: Trei Brundrett via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Babies between six and nine months of age understand the meaning of some spoken words, according a new University of Pennsylvania study, which challenges previous beliefs about early childhood learning.

Although many babies vocalize aloud with sounds such as “ba ba,” “da da” and “goo goo,” the study finds they can still learn the meanings of words for foods and body parts, through daily experiences and interactions with caregivers.

Babies have been thought to understand certain sounds related to their native languages, but experts believed babies between 6 to 9 months old – often referred to as “pre-linguistic” – did not have the ability to understand the meaning of spoken words.

It was thought that children’s word comprehension abilities really didn’t appear until they were closer to the first birthday.

The researchers reached their conclusion after completing  two kinds of tests.

For the first test, the baby, while sitting on their caregiver’s lap faced a screen that had the images of one food item and one body part.

Wearing headphones, the caregiver was fed statements like, “Look at the apple” or “Where’s the apple?” to repeat to the child.

As a precaution, the caregivers also wore visors to keep them from looking at the screen. Using an eye-tracking device, which showed where a child was looking and when, the researchers were able to follow the child’s gaze.

The second test, instead of displaying a food item and body part on the screen,  showed objects arranged in natural contexts, such as a few foods laid out on a table or a human figure.

The researchers used both tests to see whether the baby, after hearing a word for something on the screen, would look at that specific object more, indicating that they understood the spoken word.

A baby participates in the study of language acquisition. (Photo: University of Pennsylvania)

A baby participates in the study of language acquisition. (Photo: University of Pennsylvania)

The test results showed the 6-to-9-month-old babies tended to fix their gaze more on the picture named by their caregiver rather than on the other images on display.

For the researchers, this demonstrated that the babies are able to understand the word associated with the appropriate object.

The researchers tested 33 6- to-9 month-old children.

They also gave the same tests to 50 children between 10-to-20 months of age, in order to compare test results of the younger children with those who were older.

Interestingly, the researchers found no noticeable improvement in word recognition in 8-and-9-month-old babies as compared to 6-to-7 month olds.

Researchers found little improvement until the children reached roughly 14 months, at which point word recognition spiked dramatically.

The researchers think that increase in the babies’ performance may either be due to the little ones being able to better understand the nature of the task because it’s part of a game they’re playing, or that it may be due to natural language development.