Researcher Gains Insights on Early Language Development

Key Findings

  • Infants begin understanding language around 6-9 months, earlier than previously thought.
  • At about 12-14 months, infants get significantly better at understanding words.
  • Everyday sensory and linguistic experiences affect language development in readily measurable ways.

What makes us distinctly human and is critical to functioning in society? The development of language early in life has long been an important research area in which brain and behavioral scientists continue to make exciting discoveries. For her contributions to expanding our understanding of early language development and her commitment to public outreach, FABBS is delighted to award Dr. Elika Bergelson an Early Career Impact Award, as nominated by the Cognitive Science Society.

Dr. Bergelson is an associate professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University and earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. In a recent interview, FABBS spoke with the leading researcher of infant language development about her research and its implications for parenting and policymaking.  

Growing up as a first-generation American, Dr. Bergelson was exposed to multiple languages including English, Russian, and Hebrew. This has shaped her interest in finding out how external factors, such as linguistic environment, affect language development. She investigates the early stages of language development and is particularly interested in when infants begin understanding language and what factors relate to this timing.

While in graduate school, Dr. Bergelson used eye-tracking methods to test infant word comprehension by measuring whether infants look more at a displayed object whose label they just heard. At this time, it was believed that word comprehension begins around age one. In Dr. Bergelson’s research however, she found that infants as young as 6 months old could understand the meaning of common nouns for foods and body parts (for example: “banana,” “mouth”).

Her research has identified another critical development period: what she refers to as the “comprehension boost.” Around 12 to 14 months of age, infants display a rapid improvement in their ability to demonstrate their understanding of words. This period may therefore be key to the overall development of language ability, as it also overlaps with the timing in which they start verbalizing these words.

In an ongoing research study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Bergelson is examining daily recordings of infant behavior to understand how factors such as linguistic environment (like parental word usage), socioeconomic status, and others predict improving language skills. Early findings suggest that in a large international sample, how much speech babies are hearing, age, and whether they are typically or atypically developing are important predictors of how much speech or babble they produce; while gender, socioeconomic status, and multilingual status, are not. In another line of work, funded by the National Science Foundation, Dr. Bergelson is also studying how differences in sensory experiences (such as congenital blindness or deafness) may contribute to differences in language development.

Research on early language development by Dr. Bergelson and others has critical implications for both parenting practices and policymaking related to child caretaking. To expand the impact of her research, Dr. Bergelson and her lab run a blog that provides digestible summaries of the science of infant language development to caretakers – to give science back to the communities that help create it. She also notes that she wishes to improve representation of the diverse individuals that can become career scientists. Her lab blog can be found at

Toddler on Trump” by quinn.anya is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

In communicating with caretakers, Dr. Bergelson emphasizes several key themes. First, that early language science is still young and there is much to learn, especially as we work to expand the communities included in research. Second, rather than worrying about creating “ideal” language environments, Dr. Bergelson encourages caretakers to treat children at any age as real conversational partners: talk to them, and show interest in what they’re interested in, even when they’re not yet able to reply in kind. Third, her team uses scientific knowledge to dispel harmful myths (like multilingualism or dialect differences being negative for language development–they’re not!), and share resources (like how scientists and medical providers measure children’s language skills).

The research is clear that it is necessary to enable parents to have healthy, happy, and consistent interactions with their children. There are no perfect benchmarks for “proper” language development or ideal settings, but increased resources should be provided to support child caretaking. To improve outcomes for children’s early language development, policies should support longer parental leave policies, affordable and quality child daycare, and other organized support for families. Dr. Bergelson noted that there is currently a large focus on educational disparities in college, but disparities in childcare early in life are also critically important, and providing resources to address them would have a high societal payoff for many later outcomes.

Potential for Future Impact

  • Understanding mechanisms and factors associated with early language development.
  • Educating caretakers about language development and the importance of interaction.
  • Increasing societal child caretaking resources to enable healthier interactions between parents and their children.

CogSci CSS Elika Bergelson (Headshot)

Dr. Elika Bergelson is a recipient of the 2023 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Cognitive Science Society.

The 2023 Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Cognition in Context, takes place in Sydney, Australia, on July 26-29, 2023.

Read more about Dr. Bergelson’s work at the links below:

Cognitive Science Society