New research, published in the journal Developmental Science. by a Florida State University psychology professor, Arielle Borovsky explores how toddlers add new words to early words, such as mama and dada. Dr. Borovsky studies learning disabilities, but in order to better understand what happens when things go awry, she has been studying early vocabulary acquisition.

When a young child has learned the names of several types of fruit, for example, they have laid the foundation, so learning a new word like “lime” or “kiwi” is easier.  By having a category label, like “toy”, it is then easy for the child to add words like “doll” or “block”. Learning new words, without previously learned related words or category labels takes longer.  Dr. Borovsky explained, “Children start to say words somewhere around their first birthday…but they’re not a random subset of adult vocabulary.
They’re not learning words like stockbroker or bifocals. That’s common
sense, but what’s really new is that they are learning these words in
clusters and there might be some words that are easier for children to
learn and some that are harder.”

Borovsky and her colleagues studied 32  two-years olds. She examined their existing
receptive vocabulary knowledge by showing images on a screen of
items that are common for toddlers.  Using eye tracking technology, the researchers could identify when the toddlers looked at pictures upon request.  The researchers taught the children six, new, complex words, but they were words already related to known words.  These words were used in five different sentences and paired with pictures on the screen.

When the children had more related words in their repertoire he was more successful and quicker at learning new words than toddlers who had fewer words in that category. For example, if a toddler know five drink words, he was better able to learn a new drink word than peers who knew only two drink types.  “This suggests we could use a
child’s own vocabulary to find words that would be easier or harder for
an individual child to learn at a particular age,” Borovsky said.

Journal Reference:

  1. Arielle Borovsky, Erica M. Ellis, Julia L. Evans, Jeffrey L. Elman. Lexical leverage: category knowledge boosts real-time novel word recognition in 2-year-olds. Developmental Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/desc.12343