The Role Of Parents In Early Understanding Of Words

What role do parents play in children's early understanding of words? At the most basic level, parents, as all humans, express words simultaneous with their actions. Indeed, the context-restricted nature of infants' early understanding reveals the universal dependencies that exist between language and action. Infants parse the action streams that they observe into meaningful units, and link those units to the words that are used to describe them (Baldwin, in press). Returning to the example of clapping, as infants view the motion of hand-repeatedly-meeting-hand and hear the chanting words of "clap hands," speech acts come to be associated with perceptual experiences. Parents, therefore, provide infants with gestures, actions, and emotions that support natural links between words and referents.

However, in addition to availing infants of these naturally occurring connections, parents differ in the ways they verbally communicate to their young children, in terms of the timing of their responses and the content of what they say, and these supports affect the course of children's receptive (and later productive) language. As noted earlier, parents' verbal responsiveness is thought to be especially supportive of children's understanding of words because responsive verbal information is offered at times of psychological salience. Adults who label objects and events that are the target of children's attention constrain interpretive possibilities, bolstering conceptual connections between words and referents (e.g., Baldwin & Markman, 1989; Bloom, 1993; Bloom, Margulis, Tinker, & Fujita, 1996; Carpenter et al., 1998; McCune, 1995; Rogoff, Mistry, Radziszewska, & Germond, 1992; Snow, 1986; Tomasello & Farrar, 1986). For example, a mother might gesture toward a novel object to elicit her child's attention and then name the object at precisely the point when her child shifts attention toward the object ("Ball. This is the ball. It's blue."). Or, she might wait for her child to demonstrate interest in an object, and use that interest as a springboard for providing verbal information (e.g., "Yes, that's a ball you have in your hand"). In both instances, the adult is being responsive by cueing into the child's interests such that the child need not "guess" the topic of conversation or rely solely on natural constraints (Nelson, 1988).

We offer empirical support for the role of parents' responsiveness in children's receptive language. In one investigation dyads were visited in their homes at 9 months of age and were visited again 4 months later (Baumwell et al., 1997). The question of interest was whether mothers who were responsive to their 9-month-olds would have toddlers who later exhibited larger receptive vocabularies.

From videotaped sessions of mother-infant play, the base rate frequencies of infant vocalizations, looks, and bids to mother, and play and exploration of toys were coded. Each maternal reaction to each infant behavior was classified into one of five categories: (1) verbal responses (mother replies promptly, contingently and appropriately within 5 seconds to a change in infant behavior—e.g., "doggie" as child shifts attention to a dog); (2) elaboration (mother builds on her prior response by providing additional information—e.g., "Furry dog!", after her first response to the child's interest in the dog); (3) focus shift (mother attempts to redirect her child's attention to something new—e.g., "Look at the bus!" as child looks at a dog); (4) prohibitions/reprimands (mother verbally restricts her child's actions—e.g., "Stop"); or (5) miss (mother ignores or shows no reaction to child's behavior). In addition, "refocus" was coded if a mother attempted to redirect her unfocused child's attention to the play materials (e.g., "Look at the dog!"—as child is not focused on anything in particular).

Analyses revealed two factors of maternal behaviors at each age (9 and 13 months): Sensitivity (a factor that loaded on mothers' verbal responsiveness, elaborations, and refocusing attempts) and Intru-siveness (a factor that loaded on focus shifts, prohibitions, and misses). Sensitivity predicted children's language comprehension at 13 months, but Intrusiveness did not. Specifically, maternal sensitivity to 9-month-olds uniquely accounted for a significant 15% of the variance in the size of infants' flexible language comprehension at 13 months after controlling for infants' 9-month language and mothers' later responsiveness. Together, infants' comprehension at 9 months and mothers' sensitivity at 9 and 13 months accounted for 37% of the variance in infants' 13-month language comprehension. In contrast, Intrusiveness accounted for a nonsignificant 1% variance in the size of children's receptive vocabularies. The fact that Intrusiveness contained verbal information (e.g., mothers' talking about objects/events outside of their children's focus and verbal prohibitions), but did not predict children's language, highlights the special significance of maternal responsiveness for children's early understanding of words and phrases.

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