Word Acquisition

Parents' um's and uh's help toddlers learn.

A team of cognitive scientists has good news for parents who are worried that they are setting a bad example for their children when they say "um" and "uh." A study conducted in the Baby Lab at the University of Rochester, in Rochester, NY, shows that toddlers actually use their parents' stumbles, hesitations and other disfluencies to help them learn language more efficiently (Developmental Science, online, April 11, 2011).

For instance, a mother walking through the zoo with a 2-year-old may point and say, "Look at the, uh, uh, rhinoceros." While fumbling for the correct word, the parent also is sending a signal that the child is about to learn something new, so he should pay attention, according to the researchers.

Young children have a lot of information to process while they listen to an adult speak, including many words that they have never heard before. 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, said lead author Richard Aslin, PhD, professor of brain and cognitive sciences. "The more predictions a listener can make about what is being communicated, the more efficiently the listener can understand it," he said.

His co-authors were graduate student Celeste Kidd and former postdoctoral fellow Katherine White, who is now at the University of Waterloo.

The researchers studied three groups of children ages 18-30 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 of a familiar item, such as a ball or a book, and a made-up image with a made-up name, like "dax" or "gorp." A recorded voice talked about the objects with simple sentences. When the voice stumbled and said "Look at the, uh," the child instinctively looked at the made-up image much more often than the familiar image - almost 70 percent of the time.

"We're not advocating that parents add disfluencies to their speech, but it's nice to know that using these verbal pauses is OK. The uh's and um's are informative," said Dr. Kidd.

The effect was only significant in children older than 2 years. The younger children, the researchers reasoned, had not yet learned the fact that disfluencies tend to precede novel or unknown words.

When children are between the ages of 2 and 3, they usually are 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.

The study builds on earlier research by Jennifer Arnold, PhD, a scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a former postdoctoral fellow at Rochester, who found that adults can use um's and uh's to their advantage in understanding language.

Additionally, work by Anne Fernald, PhD, at Stanford University, in Stanford, CA, showed that it's not the quality but the quantity of speech that a child is exposed to that is most important for learning.

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