• Submit Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Papers
  • Science Sessions: The PNAS Podcast Program

Nature and origins of the lexicon in 6-mo-olds

  1. Richard N. Aslinb,c
  1. aPsychology & Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708;
  2. bBrain & Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627;
  3. cHaskins Laboratories, New Haven, CT 06511
  1. Edited by Patricia K. Kuhl, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, and approved September 28, 2017 (received for review July 22, 2017)


Infants start understanding words at 6 mo, when they also excel at subtle speech–sound distinctions and simple multimodal associations, but don’t yet talk, walk, or point. However, true word learning requires integrating the speech stream with the world and learning how words interrelate. Using eye tracking, we show that neophyte word learners already represent the semantic relations between words. We further show that these same infants’ word learning has ties to their environment: The more they hear labels for what they’re looking at and attending to, the stronger their overall comprehension. These results provide an integrative approach for investigating home environment effects on early language and suggest that language delays could be detected in early infancy for possible remediation.


Recent research reported the surprising finding that even 6-mo-olds understand common nouns [Bergelson E, Swingley D (2012) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109:3253–3258]. However, is their early lexicon structured and acquired like older learners? We test 6-mo-olds for a hallmark of the mature lexicon: cross-word relations. We also examine whether properties of the home environment that have been linked with lexical knowledge in older children are detectable in the initial stage of comprehension. We use a new dataset, which includes in-lab comprehension and home measures from the same infants. We find evidence for cross-word structure: On seeing two images of common nouns, infants looked significantly more at named target images when the competitor images were semantically unrelated (e.g., milk and foot) than when they were related (e.g., milk and juice), just as older learners do. We further find initial evidence for home-lab links: common noun “copresence” (i.e., whether words’ referents were present and attended to in home recordings) correlated with in-lab comprehension. These findings suggest that, even in neophyte word learners, cross-word relations are formed early and the home learning environment measurably helps shape the lexicon from the outset.


  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: elika.bergelson{at}gmail.com.
  • Author contributions: E.B. and R.N.A. designed research; E.B. performed research; E.B. analyzed data; E.B. wrote the paper; and E.B. and R.N.A. contributed to the revisions of the paper.

  • The authors declare no conflict of interest.

  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

  • This article contains supporting information online at www.danielhellerman.com/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1712966114/-/DCSupplemental.

Published under the PNAS license.

Online Impact

                                                1. 336531258 2018-02-17
                                                2. 6455421257 2018-02-17
                                                3. 5128821256 2018-02-17
                                                4. 4014601255 2018-02-17
                                                5. 9637141254 2018-02-17
                                                6. 6087041253 2018-02-17
                                                7. 6141561252 2018-02-17
                                                8. 16211251 2018-02-17
                                                9. 202981250 2018-02-17
                                                10. 1634281249 2018-02-17
                                                11. 2115681248 2018-02-17
                                                12. 8627591247 2018-02-17
                                                13. 1184961246 2018-02-17
                                                14. 9203941245 2018-02-17
                                                15. 4504061244 2018-02-16
                                                16. 5597191243 2018-02-16
                                                17. 5234981242 2018-02-16
                                                18. 6285841241 2018-02-16
                                                19. 3913011240 2018-02-16
                                                20. 5129741239 2018-02-16