What's in a Name?

Read about being a mother of 12 as our resident 'Supermom' shares her wise parenting advice.

I've noticed my babies perk up when they hear their names, and like most moms have used this to good advantage without taking too much notice. For instance, I know that if I say, "Here's your cup," my baby won't pay too much attention and continue to cry for a drink, but if instead I clarify, "Here is Danny's cup," the baby takes notice and sees his cup.

This is an amazing phenomenon, but not one I'd thought about too often. Researchers are starting to explore the way infants' minds work and are proving what intuition always told us: babies can learn words if we weave their names into the identification of objects. Psychologist Heather Bortfeld of Texas A&M University found that babies use their names to help break up sentences into smaller parts and this helps them learn new words.

The use of your baby's name in a sentence acts as a kind of anchor

The use of your baby's name in a sentence acts as a kind of anchor. At the age of 6 months, a baby can learn a word that follows his name, even when hearing both words as part of a sentence. How does this work?

A 'popping out' pattern

Have you ever listened to someone speaking a foreign language of which you have little or no knowledge? It's hard to figure out what they are saying because you can't tell where the words start and end. This is called segmentation. When the baby hears his own name, it helps him break up a sentence into understandable parts. Bortfield calls this a 'popping out' pattern, where one familiar word helps the baby to learn a new word as he makes an association between old and new words.

To test this phenomenon, researchers spoke to babies first using the baby's name, then a different name in combination with objects. For example a baby would hear, "Here is Emma's cup." Then, "This is Fred's bike."

After this, the researchers said the target words cup and bike, to measure the baby's response. Babies showed interest in the target words that had been spoken in conjunction with their own names, and ignored the other words.

When two more random words were added, the researchers found that the babies listened longer to the word that had been said with their names. They also found that the other target word was listened to for the same amount of time as the two new additional words. Put this knowledge to good use in teaching your child to talk.

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