A LiveScience report by Robert Roy Britt describes research done by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek:

Like teenagers, babies don’t much care what their parents say.

Though they are learning words at 10 months old, infants tend to grasp the names of objects that interest them rather than whatever the speaker thinks is important, a new study finds.

And they do it quickly.

The infants were able to learn two new words in five minutes with just five presentations for each word and object, said study leader Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University. Importantly, the babies paired a new word to the object they liked best, regardless of what object the speaker referred to.

“The baby naturally assumes that the word you’re speaking goes with the object that they think is interesting, not the object that you show an interest in,” Hirsh-Pasek said…

“Ten-month-olds simply ‘glue’ a label onto the most interesting object they see,” said Shannon Pruden, a Temple doctoral student in psychology and lead author of a report on the findings in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development.

Later, around 18 months, children learn to use the speaker’s interest—such as where the eyes gaze—as a guide to learning, the researchers say.

Still, Hirsh-Pasek thinks there is a lesson for parents and educators of children at all ages: “Sometimes we fail to take notice of what our learners are doing and what they’re interested in,” she said. “We all learn best when things are meaningful.”

Thanks to Songdog for this extremely interesting news.

And thanks to John Emerson of Idiocentrism for sending me a depressing article about how Chinese parents will have to start picking babies’ names from a government-approved list. I realize some European countries also restrict parents’ choices, and I don’t like it there either. Governments exist (or should exist, if they have any excuse at all) to serve us, not vice versa.


  1. There’s a lot of work being done here at UC Davis with infants and sign language; how babies who are not able to form words verbally can nonetheless communicate with parents and siblings by signing. Their vocabulary can be quite extensive (I have particularly fond memories of my eight-month-old niece rapidly tapping a coffee table when she saw a photo of a hairy woodpecker).
    What’s interesting is that kids who have signed at a pre-verbal stage pick up language much faster than those who haven’t. I’d like to know if Pruden et al. think this has an effect on how many words these kids can pick up versus the others at the ten-month-old stage…

  2. I don’t think comparing the French with the Chinese naming rules is really fair. U.S. governments would have similar conniptions if you began to insist that your name is written with On Beyond Zebra letters, or that you have named your baby after Prince during his glyphic period.
    Although I do think the Chinese government should allow everything in Unicode, which has way more Han characters than anyone can read.

  3. I have a lot of sympathy for the approved name list tactic; I’ve seen enough kids beaten up for the tiniest of reasons that I think it reasonable to say that had the British government require Pixie Frou-Frou Geldof be called something else, it would have been doing the girl a service.

  4. I assume that by “a depressing article” you are referring to the depressingly low standard of what passes for journalism in the Times in recent years.
    I was unfortunate enough to read the article on Saturday, and if I recall correctly it was not that the Chinese government was censoring what names parents could choose, but that previously names were hand-written and so pretty much anything went, but now that a computer system was being implemented, characters chosen for names are necessarily restricted to the character set available on the computer system (which, sensibly enough will exclude thousands of rare characters that hardly anybody can read). Now it’s my guess that this is exactly the same situation for Japanese and Korean parents, whose choice of name must also be limited by what the computer can cope with.

  5. Vanya_6724 says

    I for one don’t like it. In the Chinese case the approved names list is motivated by nothing more than bureacratic expediency. Unfortunately in China today when the choice is between an administrative official’s convenience or preserving Chinese written traditions the administrative officials always win.

  6. Estonia is one of the countries where parents’ choices in choosing kids’ names are restricted: you can’t give your kid a “strange and unusual” name anymore. I must say that I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I do sympathize with the poor kids whose parents have given them names like Matrix, Shrek, Noisy, Filareta Dolcetta, Piadoora, or Ozzi. On the other hand, I don’t think this should be regulated by law. Written laws generally tend to be too rigid.
    People giving their kids “strange” (or foreign) names seems to be a symptom of rapid social changes, and in time, these fads always die. People become better educated — in Estonia, the main problem seems to be with people mispronouncing foreign names or just using words that they don’t really know the meaning of — develop a new set of values that demand using “traditional” names and so on.

  7. michael farris says

    “I think it reasonable to say that had the British government require Pixie Frou-Frou Geldof be called something else, it would have been doing the girl a service.”
    I suspect some analyst is going to build a summer house in Spain off of that name.

  8. Here in New Zealand we have a superb rugby player called Zinzan Brooke, of mixed Yugoslav and Maori ancestry. I recall a minor furore in the local press when it reported a rugby-loving couple in France had been forbidden to name their boy Zinzan.

  9. And yet the French government apparently has no problem with Zinadine Zidane.

  10. John Emerson says

    Regarding babies: I remember that my son, my niece, and my grandnephew who I now frequently see all seemed to use words very generically. For example, “owie”, after our white cat, seemed to have meant any animate creature, but also some white inanimate things.

  11. He’s Zinedine.
    How about the Latvian language law, which required all people called Boris to change their name to Boriss, etcetera.

  12. Actually there IS an approved name list in Japan, and there has been since long before computers were an issue. They started laying down the law and restricting names immediately after the end of WW2 (along with a lot of other language reforms), but the supplementary list of kanji “for names only” (as opposed to all the other kanji, the jouyou or “standard use” kanji, that everyone is supposed to learn in school) gradually got bigger and bigger.
    The last big flap was when they decided to go ahead and expand the list to include all (or most?) of the kanji in JIS (level 1), without considering meanings, which meant at first they were proposing to incloude kanji that meant things like “feces” and “curse”. But most of the really unpleasant ones got taken out before the official revised list was released, I think.
    So, yeah, ironically in Japan names were heavily restricted before computers mattered, and now the influence of computers is actually leading officials to EXPAND the list.

  13. John Emerson says

    Chinese freedom in naming is pretty extreme. Siblings or cousins might have all their names chosen from the same poem, with the result that (for example) five brothers might be named Oh, Say, Can, You, and See Chang. As far as I know, any graph in the biggest standard dictionary (~50,000, including obsolete forms and hapax legomena) could be a first or middle name. (Though not, I presume, the improvised forms used for words like le-se “trash”)

  14. Pica — glad you included the prefix “hairy” up there…

  15. make that “woody”

  16. Gag Halfrunt says

    How about the Latvian language law, which required all people called Boris to change their name to Boriss, etcetera.
    What was the reason for that? Was it anything to do with different methods of transliterating Russian names to Latvian? (I’m assuming that people called Boris in Estonia are likely to be ethnic Russians.)

  17. Gag Halfrunt says

    That should of course read Latvia. How stupid of me.

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