“What did you say?” Children’s Ability to Learn Words through Overheard Speech

I am sure many of us have stories of young children saying words that they should not be repeating at their age. And I am sure many of these stories make us smile. When my brother was about two-years-old he was playing with his Hot Wheels cars on the floor while my parents watched a popular sitcom. One of the characters on the show shouted a word (that will not be repeated here) and as in most sitcoms, audience laughter followed his outburst. Without looking up my brother started repeating the word while continuing to play with his cars. Who knew a two-year-old could have road rage! My parents, quickly realizing that he was in fact, paying attention to more than just his cars, scrambled to change the channel. While my brother did not necessarily understand what this word meant, he showed that he was actually paying attention and listening to his surroundings without giving us any obvious cues of where his attention was directed. There are numerous examples of children not only repeating but learning words through conversations that do not involve them. This learning mechanism is known as overhearing and children’s ability to learn words in these contexts have been studied in the word learning literature.

First, I want to challenge us to think about the different contexts in which children learn words. We obviously know that children learn words when directly instructed. For example, imagine a father holding a sippy cup in front of his one-year-old daughter. The father gets the attention of his daughter by looking at her and saying her name. Then he looks at the cup and labels the object as “cup”. His daughter is able to follow his eye gaze to look at the cup as well. Through this interaction it is clear to the daughter that the word “cup” belongs to the object her father is holding. This social interaction is known as joint attention, which is the coordinated attention between two people and an item of interest in an intentional context (Akhtar & Gernsbacher, 2007). Joint attention, or more broadly defined, direct instruction is important for word learning. It can help reduce the uncertainty that often comes with figuring out what a word is actually labeling. However, how often are these direct instruction opportunities happening between a caregiver and a child? Parents and caregivers lead such busy lives and there are many things in our world that compete for our attention. It would be difficult to provide children with direct, intentional teaching opportunities every waking moment of the day. In addition, not all cultures value direct instruction as highly as others. Some cultures expect young children to take responsibility of their own attention by observing the activities of others and learning from this observation (Rogoff, Mistry, Göncü, & Mosier, 1993). Given these factors and the fast rate at which children learn words, there has to be evidence of children successfully learning words in less structured environments.

To begin with, there is evidence in the literature that as children grow and develop, they are not relying solely on these direct instruction interactions with their caregivers. Researchers found a weakening relationship between direct instruction and infants’ early vocabularies after 15 months of age (Carpenter, Nagell, & Tomasello, 1998). This finding could suggest that infants are not just relying on these intentional, directed situations to learn new information but are starting to learn to monitor the attention of others. Additional research also found that infants as young as 19 months were able to monitor and then participate in conversations between their mother and an older sibling with information relevant to that conversation (Barton &Tomasello, 1998). These two findings suggest that infants potentially as young as 15 months are able to direct their own attention and learn from conversations in which they are not being directly addressed.

As I mentioned before, learning through overheard speech has been examined in the word learning literature. Overhearing is the ability to tune into other people’s conversations as a third-party observer (Akhtar, Jipson, & Callanan, 2001). Imagine a child sitting at a table and coloring in her coloring book while her parents talk to each other in the kitchen. The child’s ability to tune into this conversation and learn from this conversation is an example of learning by overhearing. According to research, 2 and 2.5-year-olds can learn new labels for novel objects in these overhearing contexts (Akhtar et al., 2001). In this study, children participated in either an addressed condition where an adult directly taught them new words or in an overhearing condition where the adult taught another adult new words and the child sat off to the side of this interaction. In the learning situation for both conditions, the adult labeled new objects with new labels either directly to the child or to the other adult. Then the child was tested to see if they learned the new label for the new object. Researchers found that both 2 and 2.5-year-olds were learning these new words in not only the addressed condition, but also in the overhearing condition (Akhtar et al., 2001).

Other studies have looked at how children from different language backgrounds learn from overheard speech. Researchers investigated overheard speech in children who know one language (monolingual) or two or more languages (multilingual). They also examined the use of obvious cues versus subtle cues in the learning interaction between two adults that the children were observing. In the obvious cue condition, one adult handed the object they were talking about to the other adult. In the subtle cue condition, one adult just watched the other adult while she talked about the object she was holding. The researchers found that multilingual children learned in both the obvious and subtle cue conditions while monolingual children were only learning in the obvious cue condition (Shimpi, O’Doherty, & Odean, 2019). These results support earlier findings that children who know multiple languages may not rely on these obvious social cues when it comes to learning language (Yow & Markman, 2011). This could lead to additional interesting questions examining multilinguals and monolinguals’ learning abilities through overheard speech.

Another interesting study looked at how children learn through overheard speech but in the context of a phone conversation (Foushee & Xu, 2016). The experimenter brought items into a room where a child was seated and placed these items in front of the child. She then took a phone call while in the room and talked about the items and an associated fact about that item. The researchers found that older children (4.5 to 6-year-olds) learned both the labels for the objects and the facts. However, 3 to 4.5-year-olds struggled to learn the labels and the facts. The researchers point to the still developing skill of self-directed attention as one of the factors that may contribute to younger children’s struggle to learn from overheard speech, especially when the conversation partner is not physically present like in a phone call. 

So why is learning from overheard speech important? As mentioned earlier, not all cultures value direct instruction as highly as other cultures. Therefore, understanding how children learn information through these overhearing contexts can help caregivers and educators foster more supportive learning environments for children from various backgrounds. Research on learning words through overheard speech will illuminate the diversity in how children are able to learn and build their vocabulary. Hopefully by understanding the mechanisms in how children learn words, we as a society can foster optimal, early vocabulary development in order to promote school readiness and academic success. So, the next time you are around a child, remember that they are listening and learning from you!


Akhtar, N., & Gernsbacher, M. A. (2007). Joint attention and vocabulary development: A critical look, Language Linguist Compass, 1, 195-207.

Akhtar, N., Jipson, J., & Callanan, M. (2001). Learning words through overhearing. Child Development, 72, 41-30.

Barton, M., & Tomasello, M. (1991). Joint attention and conversations in mother-infant-sibling triads. Child Development, 62, 517-529.

Carpenter, M., Nagell, K., & Tomasello, M. (1998). Social cognition, joint attention, and communicative competence from 9 to 15 months of age. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 63, 176.

Foushee, R. & Xu, F. (2016). Active overhearing: Development in preschoolers’ skill at ‘listening in’ to naturalistic overheard speech. Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Austin, TX, 2177-2182.

Rogoff, B., Mistry, J., Göncü, A., & Mosier, C. (1993). Guided participation in cultural activity by toddlers and caregivers. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 58, v-179.

Shimpi, P, O’Doherty, K., & Odean, R. (2019, March). Linguistic and cultural factors in toddlers’ word learning through overhearing. Paper presented at the 2019 Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Baltimore, MD. Abstract retrieved from https://convention2.allacademic.com/one/srcd/srcd19/index.php?cmd=Online+Prog ram+View+Paper&selected_paper_id=1455285&PHPSESSID=4cv25letfbm6ofsvt1pnnqsi90

Yow, W. Q., & Markman, E. M. (2011). Young bilingual children’s heightened sensitivity to referential cues. Journal of Cognition and Development, 12, 12-31.