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You can boost your baby's vocabulary

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TUESDAY, June 25 (HealthDay News) -- If you have a baby who's learning to talk, you may feel the need to chatter incessantly to boost her vocabulary, but a new study says another factor is crucial: the ability to provide non-verbal clues that help an infant figure out what words mean.

In other words, it's vital to not only talk to babies but also connect the words you use to the world in which you are using them, the research suggests.

The good news is that anyone -- regardless of education or vocabulary level -- can use this approach to teach language to babies, said study co-author Lila Gleitman, a professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you took the effort to talk to your kid about the here-and-now, you'd have an impact on how they learn the meaning of words," she added.

And a better vocabulary, she noted, often translates to more success in school and in life.

At issue is the way humans learn language, especially as babies when words or grammar don't make sense. At the very start, a parent needs to do some world-to-word pairing, linking objects like a cat or a spoon to the word for each, Gleitman explained.

But one expert added that it's not just a matter of pointing to something and saying it's a banana or a dog or a couch.

For example, if you point to the sky and say something is an "airplane," the child might not know if that's the plane or the cloud next to it or a bird flying above, said Skott Freedman, an assistant professor who studies vocabulary at Ithaca College in New York. That's where the teaching talent of parents comes in.

The new study tried to figure out how a parent's ability to provide context affects a child's vocabulary in the long run.

To do this, the researchers created an experiment aimed at helping them understand which parents provided more context for the words they spoke to their kids. They told 218 college students to look at a muted video of 50 parents talking to their babies, and asked the students to try to figure out the words the parents were using.

The theory is that the students would detect more words from the silent video if the parents provided more nonverbal context by, say, pointing at objects they're talking about to the child.

The researchers then waited three years and analyzed the vocabulary of the babies, who were initially between 14 to 18 months old.

The results: Kids had bigger vocabularies if the words of their parents were more decipherable by the college students. This trend wasn't affected by the education and income of the parents, suggesting that it's not a matter of the parents simply knowing more words.

What does this mean in the big picture? "There's definitely a message for parents," Freeman said. "The message is not how much you talk to your children, it's how you talk to your child."

Study co-author Gleitman put it this way: "Talk to them about the objects and things you bring to their attention: 'Look at this strawberry. I see you're eating your peas, what nice little peas.'"

This simple approach, she said, can make a world of difference.

The study appears in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.