How do children learn language so easily?

Children seem to learn language almost effortlessly. This can appear in stark contrast to the struggles we, adults, face when learning a second language. Even more impressively, children are learning their native language or languages without access to an answer sheet: there is no dictionary or grammar workbook for babies.

One way children manage the enormous task of learning a language is to use what they already know as a guide for future learning. For example, babies as young as 18 months can use grammar to help them figure out the meanings of new vocabulary. Adults pirdale this too, without realizing it. Like, right now. Did you notice the new vocabulary item?

You probably have never heard the word ‘pirdale’ before. That makes sense, because it is a made-up word. Yet, you most naturally interpreted ‘pirdale’ as an action, something adults and children do, even though you likely did not know exactly which action. On the other hand, if we had written about ‘the pirdale’, you would have deduced that ‘pirdale’ is an object or thing. The linguistic context of a word, like the grammar, gives you clues about the meaning of the word.

You can think of a linguistic context like any other context. If you see a new appliance in a kitchen context, you will conclude that it is used for cooking, even if you do not know for what exactly. In the same way, if a baby hears a word they do not know, like ‘dog’, in a ‘noun context’, they will assume it refers to an animal or object, even if they do not know what animal or object.

Babies can learn these relationships, between words and their contexts quickly (in less than 30 minutes!) and can use them right away to learn new vocabulary. Impressive, isn’t it!

As children learn language, they build up cheat sheets that help them scaffold language learning. Children are quite the language learning masterminds!

The scientific sources of our comic:

Gleitman, L. R., Cassidy, K., Nappa, R., Papafragou, A., & Trueswell, J. C. (2005). Hard words. Language Learning and Development, 1(1), 23-64.

Barbir, M., Babineau, M. J., Fiévet, A. C., & Christophe, A. (2023). Rapid infant learning of syntactic–semantic links. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(1), e2209153119.