Language acquisition in ‘genius’ infants and toddlers

Throughout their first year of life, infants learn the sounds, inflections, cadences, and accents of a particular language, sounds they should keep distinct, and sounds their language doesn’t use—and can decipher them even if they are learning more than one language at a time.

“I think a reasonable perspective for parents to take is to presuppose that their infant is really, really smart,” says Daniel Swingley, a professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of the Penn Infant Language Center. “Think about your child as a genius who’s just not very well-informed and has a short attention span.”

Founded in 2003 and located in the C Wing of 3401 Walnut St., the Infant Language Center, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, researches the experiences that children have in their first few years of life that provide them with the foundation for language competence, and studies how language develops in 6- to 30-month-old infants and toddlers.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is take the information that babies get and try to figure out what lets them get so much out of it even when they’re in a period where they understand so little about the world,” Swingley says. “They know more than they’re letting on, but they don’t have the kinds of skills that we have as adults, and yet they succeed fantastically at this incredibly intricate task.”

Swingley, who has been working on infant language acquisition since he was an undergrad at Brown University, says for years, most scientists believed a 6-month-old baby could not understand words and only interpreted what a speaker was saying emotionally through his or her pitch contours and speech intonation. Word learning was thought to begin at 9 or 10 months of age, but research at the Center has confirmed otherwise.

A recent experiment had a 6-month-old baby sit on his or her parent’s lap in front of a computer screen. Researchers put a set of different pictures on the screen, such as an apple and a face, and prompted the parent, through headphones, to ask, “Where’s the apple?” The scholars then tracked where the infant looked.

The study revealed that most infants will more often look at the apple when their parent says the word.

“Already at 6 months, most kids were recognizing most of the words,” Swingley says.

Current research at the Center is looking at the acoustics of maternal speech to try and get computer models to recognize speech as efficiently as babies do.

Parents and children who take part in the lab’s observational studies are recruited by advertisements on SEPTA and visits by Center staff to pediatric waiting rooms at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Many of the children enrolled are not yet speaking.

Elizabeth Crutchley, lab manager at the Center, says sessions typically last an hour and include children watching a three-, 15-, or 20-minute video. She says a large portion of the parents who sign up for the studies are interested in their child’s developmental progress or contributing to scientific research.

Crutchley says working with infants and toddlers is “great” and “challenging.”

“Sometimes they’re not really interested in doing what we’re trying to get them to do, but most of the time, if we keep them entertained, it goes pretty well,” she says.

Giorgia Di Lauro, a visiting scholar and speech pathologist from Italy, has been conducting research and assisting with the studies at the Center since March 2014.

She says the most interesting part of the work is watching parents interact with their children as they observe their language development.

“They seem to be surprised when we tell them that kids already know and understand words, and they can interact with them,” she says.

Undergraduate students attracted to the Center include psychology majors and those interested in developmental psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and psycholinguistics.

Reem AlRabiah, a sophomore psychology major working at the Center, is interested in psychology and possibly developmental psychology, and says she enjoys working with the children.

“I grew up with a lot of little cousins, so coming to college meant that I don’t get to see them a lot,” she says. “It’s nice to play with kids every once in a while.”

Over the past 20 or 30 years, Swingley says experts conducting cognitive research on infants have been surprised by how much babies actually know. He says the elaborated, finely honed techniques utilized at the Center can reveal that infants and toddlers know things about language that cannot readily be seen behaviorally in their daily lives, and may not be obvious to a parent.

“One of the things that’s great about what we’re trying to accomplish is we can begin to get a sense of what it might be like to be a 6-month-old, what’s going on in that little 6-month-old head,” Swingley says. “They can’t tell us, but if we can peer in there and set up just the right kinds of situations where their responses will tell us something about what hey’re thinking, that’s really dramatic. It can give you a different attitude about what it means to be a baby. I think there’s something a little poetic about that.”

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