When it comes to language, babies could know a lot more than we think they do.

A new study published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that 1-year-olds understand speech isn't used only to refer to things and people, but also to communicate intentions. That opens up the possibility that babies can learn about the world beyond what is directly in front of them at very young ages.

"This is the first time that we've found evidence that infants understand that speech can communicate about things we can't see," said study co-author Athena Vouloumanos, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at New York University. She recently published a study in the journal Developmental Psychology suggesting that at just 9 months old, babies can distinguish between speech and other sounds in animals and adults.

"For learning, it shows that infants aren't limited to what's in the here and now," Vouloumanos added. "They can learn about people's internal state. They can learn about things that may happen in the future or happened in the past."

To look at babies' understanding of speech, 1-year-olds watched several scenarios acted out by adults. An actor tried, but failed, to stack a ring on a funnel that was out of reach; another was able to reach all of the objects. The actor who couldn't reach the funnel then turned, looked at the second and either spoke a made-up word -- "koba" -- or coughed. Sometimes, the second actor had enough information about what the first wanted, conveyed via speech, and completed the task. Other times, that actor didn't have enough information and failed to accomplish the task.

The babies looked longer when the second actor failed to do what the first actor expressed using speech, suggesting they recognized something incongruent had happened and that they understood speech communicated something about intention that coughing could not.

"If infants understand that speech can communicate intentions, when the first person used speech and the second actor fulfilled intentions, that should be how the story ends. It shouldn't be that interesting, so they shouldn't look too long," Vouloumanos said. "But when the story doesn't have a congruent ending, the infants think that it's wrong, and they look longer."

Though experts agree that there is great variation among babies when it comes to language development, there are a few basic milestones that parents can expect by around 12 months. According to the Mayo Clinic, those may include things like imitating words, and understanding simple directions or words like "Drink your milk" or "no."

Vouloumanos said the new research, though preliminary, opens the possibility that babies can not only understand that language conveys intentions, but that it also can express broader, abstract concepts that have nothing to do with their immediate environment.

"Parents point to things in the environment, and they say, 'That's a dog. Dog, dog, dog.'" she said. "But maybe they can talk about things that aren't [there]. They can say, 'Grandma has a dog. Yesterday, you saw a dog.' And maybe the infants can also understand."

Earlier on HuffPost:

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  • Their Baby Cuteness Doesn't Predict Adult Attractiveness

    A study published in the journal <em>Infant Behavior & Development</em> revealed that the standard "<a href="http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCQQtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch?v%3DXTV8bOv3Jhs&ei=0uLBToKrMuPu0gHkmNH0BA&usg=AFQjCNFtutJJhlTFZJ2fm-cmsDo46XMpzw" target="_hplink">You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby</a>" has little to do with reality. When 253 college students were asked to rank photos of the same individuals as infants and young adults (without being told who was who), there was <a href="http://bodyodd.nbcnews.com/_news/2011/08/31/7542626-must-have-been-a-beautiful-baby-maybe-not" target="_blank">no relationship between how cute the students found the babies and how attractive they found the grown-ups</a>.

  • They're Good At Sharing

    No, really, it's true. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard the shout "Mine!" -- research shows babies can sense fairness at 15 months. During one study at the <a href="http://www.washington.edu/news/articles/babies-show-sense-of-fairness-altruism-as-early-as-15-months-1" target="_hplink">University of Washington</a>, 47 babies observed videos of an experimenter distributing milk and crackers to two people. When one recipient received more food than the other, the babies paid more attention. That means they had expected a fair distribution. The researchers also found that babies who did notice unfairness were more likely to share their own toys.

  • They Read Minds

    OK, so they're not exactly psychic. But a <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111101130204.htm" target="_hplink">recent study</a> from the University of Missouri found that babies just 10 months old are starting to follow the thought processes of others. Yuyan Luo, an associate professor of developmental psychology who conducted the study, tells The Huffington Post, "Babies, like adults, when they see something for the first time -- when something is surprising -- they look for a long time. It shows [they recognize] something is inconsistent." It's called the "violation of expectation," she explained. When babies are surprised by something or notice something unexpected has happened, they tend to gaze at that thing longer. In Luo's research, babies watched actors consistently choose object A (such as a block or a cylinder) over object B. When an actor then switched to object B, the babies stared for about five to six seconds longer, meaning they recognized the change in preference.

  • They're A Little Bit Racist

    Don't judge a book by its cover. Treat all people the same. We're all equals. These are sentiments parents strive to teach their kids from a very young age. And they should. Starting, like, immediately. Researchers at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom found that babies at three months <a href="http://www.world-science.net/exclusives/060212_racefrm2.htm" target="_hplink">begin showing a preference for the faces of people of their own race</a>. But not all hope for equality is lost. The same study showed that babies who are exposed to people of all different races are less likely to develop bias at such an early age.

  • The Rhythm Is Gonna Get Them

    Researchers from Brigham Young University found that five-month-old babies can <a href=" http://news.byu.edu/archive08-oct-babymusic.aspx" target="_hplink">identify an upbeat song as being different from a series of sad, slow songs</a>. In other words, they are happy. They know it. They will clap their hands. Or stare longer, as the case may be. The experimenters showed babies an emotionless face while music played. When they played a new sad song, the babies looked away. When the music pepped up, the babies stared for three to four seconds longer.

  • They Can Tell The Good Guy From The Bad Guy

    Babies have a sense of morality at six months old, <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1275574/Babies-know-difference-good-evil-months-study-reveals.html" target="_hplink">say Yale researchers</a>. During the Yale study, babies watched a puppet show in which a wooden shape with eyes tried to climb a hill over and over again. Sometimes a second puppet helped him up the hill, and other times a third puppet pushed him down. After watching the act several times, the babies were presented with both puppets. They showed a clear preference for the good characters over the bad ones by reaching to play with the good puppet.

  • They Can Read Lips ... Kind Of

    Dr. Janet Werker of the University of British Columbia, who studies how babies perceive language, found that if a mother spoke two languages while pregnant, her infant could <a href="http://www.livescience.com/13016-bilingual-babies-brain-language-learning.html" target="_hplink">recognize the difference</a> between the two. And they don't even have to be spoken out loud. Werker's research found that infants four to six months old can <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/health/views/11klass.html" target="_hplink">visually discriminate two languages</a> when watching muted videos of someone speaking both.