Babies' first words may have more meaning than meets the ear
November 05, 2008
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Many parents will tell you their children were quick to understand words and identify things such as hands and feet at a young age. Turns out, there might be something to those claims.
Ruth Tincoff, an assistant professor of psychology at Bucknell University, is trying to find out just how much children understand as early as 6 months old and how they begin to connect sounds with their corresponding meaning, a process that is critical to language development.
"As you learn language, words jump out at you," Tincoff said. "I'm interested in how (babies) pull out a sound pattern from speech and how they use the sound pattern to understand words."
Speech development Psychologists have been studying speech development in babies for years, but little is known about the comprehension of infants younger than a year old, said Tincoff, whose previous findings with a collaborator were included in a book, Infant Development: The Essential Readings (Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000).
Tincoff's current research, which is funded by Bucknell, could shed light on how children learn words and develop language and cognitive skills. It also could contribute to diagnostic tools for speech delays and other developmental issues, an overall goal in the field of language development.
Tincoff is continuing research she began as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., to find out how babies learn words. She previously studied speech processing mechanisms in cotton-top tamarin monkeys as they compare to those in humans during a fellowship at Harvard University. She developed ideas for her current research as a visiting professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Experiments planned Tincoff and a group of student researchers will conduct experiments with 25 to 40 families with children from 6 months to 2 years old. The first trials will involve 6-month-old babies. Additional studies would include children from 6 months to 2 years old.
"That is a prime period when all the good learning is happening," Tincoff said.
The children, who will be recruited from the Susquehanna Valley area, will sit on their parents' laps – a comfortable environment for them – and face two large television screens displaying images of people or objects. At the same time, a speaker will project recordings of sounds corresponding to the images.
The parents will wear visors covering their faces so they do not inadvertently cue their children to give a certain response.
Tincoff and her research team will videotape the experiments so they may analyze, frame by frame, how often the children connect the images with their proper sounds.
"My prediction is that they will look longer at the video with the matching speech," Tincoff said. "What I want to know, and what would be exciting to discover and learn more about, is how babies at 6 months really are knitting their worlds together. This is an opportunity to tie different questions together but also to understand what the infants' world is."
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