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One of the biggest milestones of parenthood is witnessing the baby uttering its first word, ‘mama.’ Well, of course, it’s not always ‘mama,’ but whatever the word is, it’s always exciting. Before this first word, however, most people assume that the baby is just free-falling somewhere, free-falling in a mental abyss, and doesn’t understand a thing going on around. However, new findings challenge these assumptions and suggest that babies might be able to understand some words and even phrases way before they utter their first word.

The study reveals that infants around the age of 11 months who are just about to start talking can usually process some multi-word phrases. The study also implies that babies learn phrases and words simultaneously.

Using recorded audio

The study conducted by University of Edinburgh researchers studied 36 infants through a series of attention tests that recorded audio from adults’ voices. The audio picked from typical adult to infant conversations mostly comprised of three-word phrases. The study authors then watched the babies for signs of comprehension.

This is the first time researchers are trying to prove that babies can understand things before their first words. The study also disputes a long-held assumption that babies first learn syllables, then words, and later progress to more complex phrases and sentences.

First words and new languages

According to School of Philosophy, Psychology and Languages Sciences’ Dr. Barbara Skarabela in a university release, previous research shows that babies are able to understand a few common words. Dr. Skarabela explains that this particular study shows that babies cannot only comprehend these basic words, but they can remember some complex phrases like ‘clap your hands’ from everyday conversations.

Interestingly, the study links this ability of infants to learn language in phrase and sentence form to how it later becomes difficult for them to be bilingual. Learning a new language as an adult would require learning individual words that affect the likelihood of native-level proficiency.