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Many of a child's first words are used to direct caregivers

A new study published in the Journal of Child Language has found that words used to direct caregivers, known as demonstratives, are likely to be among the first words a child learns and uses most frequently. 

“Sharing attention is the infrastructure for the rest of language and social interaction,” said Amalia Skilton, a linguistics scholar and Klarman Fellow in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University.

We already know that early speakers of Mandarin, English, and Spanish use words such as “this” and “that.” However, these languages have a relatively simple structure. Skilton wanted to see if there was a strong drive to use these types of words in languages that were different in structure and social context. 

Skilton observed 45 Ticuna speakers in Peru and found that their children followed the same pattern even though the language is distinct from the other languages studied.  

There are only two primary demonstratives in English (“this and “that”). However, Ticuna, an indigenous language spoken by people living along the Amazon/Solimões River in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil has six demonstratives. The four most common demonstratives were examined.

During her year in Peru, Skilton found that most of the one-year-olds she monitored said “this/that” or “here/there,” indicating a universal desire to share attention. Based on this finding, she suggests that children should start using that vocabulary at roughly 12-18 months, regardless of language. 

While young children are eager to share attention, Skilton points out that they find it difficult to understand other people’s perspectives. 

Observations have shown that children struggle to comprehend what others believe. Skilton’s research adds to these findings because it demonstrates that they also have difficulty understanding how others think about objects in space.

Skilton explains that caregivers should not be concerned if a child under three years old misuses the words.

“While adults think of these words as simple, their meanings are fairly challenging for children to understand at young ages and having trouble with them is a typical part of child development.”

Skilton plans on continuing her research in Peru, where she hopes to look at how children use pointing gestures to direct adults’ attention. 

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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