Ums and uhs help toddlers learn words

U. ROCHESTER (US) — Parents don’t need to worry about speaking perfect English to their toddlers. Hesitations in speech actually make it easier for children to learn language.

A new study finds children learn to pay closer attention when parents flounder while talking to them. Processing language, especially words they have never heard before, can be difficult.

If a child’s brain waits until a new word is spoken and then tries to figure out what it means after the fact, it becomes a much more difficult task and the child is apt to miss what comes next, says Richard Aslin, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and one of the study’s authors.

“The more predictions a listener can make about what is being communicated, the more efficiently the listener can understand it,” says Aslin.

Details are reported in the journal Developmental Science.

Researchers studied three groups of children between the ages of 18 and 30 months. Each child sat on a parent’s lap in front of a monitor with an eye-tracking device. Two images appeared on the screen: one image of a familiar item, like a ball or a book, and one made-up image with a made-up name (like a “dax” or a “gorp”).

A recorded voice talked about the objects with simple sentences. When the voice stumbled and said, “Look at the, uh…” the child looked at the made-up image more often than the familiar image (almost 70 percent of the time).

The results were only significantly seen in children older than 2. Younger children had not yet learned that parents’ stumbles and hesitations (technically referred to as disfluencies) tend to precede novel or unknown words.

Children between 2 and 3 are usually at a developmental stage where they can construct rudimentary sentences of two to four words in length. And they typically have a vocabulary of a few hundred words.

“We’re not advocating that parents add disfluencies to their speech, but I think it’s nice for them to know that using these verbal pauses is okay—the ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ are informative,” says graduate student Celeste Kidd, the study’s lead author.

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