Tag Archives: cognitive development

Reprinted from The Cornell Chronicle, August 26, 2010

Young children are natural psychologists, says Cornell cognitive psychologist Tamar Kushnir. By the time they're in preschool, they already understand a lot about other people's inner mental lives -- their desires, preferences, beliefs and emotions. But how do they acquire this understanding? In part by using statistics, reports a new study led by Kushnir.

The research, described in the August issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, "provides the first evidence that young children can use intuitive statistical abilities to infer a psychological cause -- a preference," says Kushnir, assistant professor of human development and director of the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory in the College of Human Ecology.

For example, in one experiment, preschool children saw a puppet named Squirrel remove five toys of the same type (all blue flowers) from a container full of toys and happily play with them. What varied for different children, however, were the contents of the container. For one-third of the children, all the toys were blue flowers. For another third of the children, only 50 percent were blue flowers; the others were red circles. For the last third of the children, 18 percent were blue flowers and 82 percent were red circles.

When later asked to give Squirrel a toy that she liked, the children were most likely to give her blue flowers when the container held only 18 percent blue flowers, and slightly less frequently when the container had 50 percent blue flowers. When the container had 100 percent blue flowers, they gave her toys at random.

"That means children inferred that the puppet had a preference for blue flowers if the sample of five toys didn't match the proportion of toys in the population (the container)," explains Kushnir. "This is a statistical phenomenon known as non-random sampling."

In another experiment, 18- to 24-month-old children also learned about the preferences of an adult experimenter from non-random sampling. They watched the adult choose five toys -- either from a box with 18 percent of that toy or 82 percent. The adult played happily with the toy either way, but the toddler only concluded that the adult had a preference if she had chosen the toys from a box in which that toy was scarce.
"Our results support the intriguing conclusion that statistical inference plays a critical role in early social learning -- both as infants form initial notions of psychological causality and later as preschoolers achieve more detailed and sophisticated psychological knowledge," write the authors, who include Fei Xu of the University of California-Berkeley and Henry M. Wellman of the University of Michigan.
Early statistical intuitions are not conscious or explicit, Kushnir said. "Xu previously found that infants have expectations about random sampling when they are 8 months old. What we did was ask -- could these expectations be useful for learning about other people? We found that indeed they could. When infants' expectations are violated they look for a hidden cause. In this case, the hidden cause is a preference for one toy over another.

"Babies are incredible natural learners," adds Kushnir. "Babies and children are like little scientists. They gather evidence by observing and experiencing the world. Later on, there will be time for formal instruction, but when they're really young, this sort of informal learning is critical."
The research was supported by the McDonnell Collaborative Initiative on Causal Learning, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada.

This story is adapted from an article by the Association for Psychological Science.

Young Children’s Understanding of Free Will

When do children learn how not to do something they want to do? Every parent wants to know! The answer has important implications for parenting and early childhood education. Free will, the notion that someone who has performed an action could have done otherwise, plays a central role in adults’ explanations of behavior and is critical to our ability to reason about moral obligation and social responsibility. Yet, very little research has examined the development of the concept in children.

Tamar Kushnir, Assistant Professor of Human Development and her colleagues, Henry Wellman, University of Michigan and Alison Gopnik, University of California at Berkeley, propose to do just that. In a new grant from the Causal Learning Collaborative through the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the team will study preschoolers’ reasoning about their choices and actions.

Research on children’s learning shows that by the time children are 4 or 5 years old, they can reason about the psychological causes of human actions, including goals, beliefs, desires, and intentions.  They can make distinctions between actions caused by psychological states such as desires and those caused by physical forces or biological processes.  Preschoolers are also able to reason about things that might have happened.  Thus, it is plausible that preschoolers may have some concept of freedom of choice.

Preliminary work by Kushnir, graduate student Nadia Chernyak, and her colleagues has shown that 4-year-olds can already reason about freedom of choice in some circumstances, but important developmental differences exist between 4- and 6-year olds.  In particular, 4-year-olds appreciate that in some situations they would have been able to freely choose a course of action, while in other situations their actions are constrained. However, 4-year-olds cannot reason about the freedom to inhibit or not do a desired action, whereas 6-year-olds can.

The researchers have designed two studies to look more deeply at young children’s understanding of free will.  In one, the researchers will examine preschoolers’ understanding of free versus constrained actions in more depth, hoping to establish an early link between action understanding, social cognition, and moral reasoning. In the second study, the researchers will look more closely at developmental differences in children’s reasoning about not doing an action and their own inhibitory control.

Who Knows Best? How Children Evaluate Who to Learn From

In another grant, from the Institute for the Social Sciences, Kushnir will conduct preliminary studies on how 3- and 4-year-old children evaluate evidence from experts in light of their own experiences through play.

Increasingly very young children are being exposed to formal instruction, either at home or in academically-oriented preschool programs. More research is needed to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this trend in early childhood education. The notion that dominates theories of young children’s learning – that they learn best through play and active exploratory experiences – suggests that that instruction may not benefit this age group. On the other hand, research on developing social cognition has shown that even preschoolers understand that some people know more than others, and this understanding guides who they choose to learn from.

These experiments involve causal learning, both because causal knowledge has been shown to be central to young children’s early concepts and because new research shows that play is critical to causal learning. One study looks at whether 3- and 4-year olds take into account another person’s level of expertise when there is ambiguous or conflicting evidence from the their own play. Another study looks at whether preschoolers know that some types of causal learning benefit from instruction whereas others may benefit more from their own play.

Findings from these studies will build on a growing body of research on the mechanisms of learning in young children with important implications for the study of cognitive development as well as for early childhood education.

“We hope studies such as these will shed light on the process by which children learn – and specifically how social cognition and social context influence early learning," said Kushhir.  "Maybe more importantly, though, we hope this research will inspire people to talk to children, answer their questions, and also to listen to them and ask them questions."

She ended with a challenge, do your own 'experiments;' find out what the young minds around us are capable of.  I promise they will amaze you.”

Karene Booker

That is Tamar Kushnir’s passion. She has been awarded two new grants that will build our understanding of the mechanisms of learning in young children with important implications for the study of cognitive development as well as for early childhood education and parenting.

Young Children’s Understanding of Free Will

When do children learn how not to do something they want to do? Every parent wants to know! The answer has important implications for parenting and early childhood education. Free will, the notion that someone who has performed an action could have done otherwise, plays a central role in adults’ explanations of behavior and is critical to our ability to reason about moral obligation and social responsibility. Yet, very little research has examined the development of the concept in children.

Tamar Kushnir, Assistant Professor of Human Development and her colleagues, Henry Wellman, University of Michigan and Alison Gopnik, University of California at Berkeley, propose to do just that. In a new grant from the Causal Learning Collaborative through the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the team will study preschoolers’ reasoning about their choices and actions.

Research on children’s learning shows that by the time children are 4 or 5 years old, they can reason about the psychological causes of human actions, including goals, beliefs, desires, and intentions.  They can make distinctions between actions caused by psychological states such as desires and those caused by physical forces or biological processes.  Preschoolers are also able to reason about things that might have happened.  Thus, it is plausible that preschoolers may have some concept of freedom of choice.

Preliminary work by Kushnir, graduate student Nadia Chernyak, and her colleagues has shown that 4-year-olds can already reason about freedom of choice in some circumstances, but important developmental differences exist between 4- and 6-year olds.  In particular, 4-year-olds appreciate that in some situations they would have been able to freely choose a course of action, while in other situations their actions are constrained. However, 4-year-olds cannot reason about the freedom to inhibit or not do a desired action, whereas 6-year-olds can.

The researchers have designed two studies to look more deeply at young children’s understanding of free will.  In one, the researchers will examine preschoolers’ understanding of free versus constrained actions in more depth, hoping to establish an early link between action understanding, social cognition, and moral reasoning. In the second study, the researchers will look more closely at developmental differences in children’s reasoning about not doing an action and their own inhibitory control.

Who Knows Best? How Children Evaluate Who to Learn From

In another grant, from the Institute for the Social Sciences, Kushnir will conduct preliminary studies on how 3- and 4-year-old children evaluate evidence from experts in light of their own experiences through play.

Increasingly very young children are being exposed to formal instruction, either at home or in academically-oriented preschool programs. More research is needed to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this trend in early childhood education. The notion that dominates theories of young children’s learning – that they learn best through play and active exploratory experiences – suggests that that instruction may not benefit this age group. On the other hand, research on developing social cognition has shown that even preschoolers understand that some people know more than others, and this understanding guides who they choose to learn from.

These experiments involve causal learning, both because causal knowledge has been shown to be central to young children’s early concepts and because new research shows that play is critical to causal learning. One study looks at whether 3- and 4-year olds take into account another person’s level of expertise when there is ambiguous or conflicting evidence from the their own play. Another study looks at whether preschoolers know that some types of causal learning benefit from instruction whereas others may benefit more from their own play.

Findings from these studies will build on a growing body of research on the mechanisms of learning in young children with important implications for the study of cognitive development as well as for early childhood education.

“We hope studies such as these will shed light on the process by which children learn – and specifically how social cognition and social context influence early learning," said Kushhir.  "Maybe more importantly, though, we hope this research will inspire people to talk to children, answer their questions, and also to listen to them and ask them questions."

She ended with a challenge, do your own 'experiments;' find out what the young minds around us are capable of.  I promise they will amaze you.”

Human Development Outreach & Extension

Human Development Today e-News

Sujin Yang and Barbara Lust

Insights for parents, teachers, educators, and policy makers from research by Dr. Barbara Lust, Professor in the Department of Human Development and Director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab and by Dr. Sujin Yang, former Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab One of the greatest feats of human development is the acquisition of language. Research at Cornell’s Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL), under the direction of Professor Barbara Lust and her students, addresses many aspects of how children acquire language. The research program explores fundamental questions such as which aspects of language acquisition are biologically endowed and which are learned, when and how language acquisition begins, and how multiple language acquisition affects cognitive development in children. Results from this research demonstrate how well equipped children are, beginning at birth, to accomplish the complex task of learning language.
The Cornell Language Acquisition Lab has long been a center of vigorous research which tries to unlock the mystery of how the child succeeds at this daunting task. At CLAL, language acquisition has been studied in young children across more than 20 different languages and cultures, by teams of graduate and undergraduate students working with collaborators across the world. Now, research within the CLAL is being merged with research being conducted in many other labs in institutions across the country and the world through a new Virtual Center for the study of Language Acquisition. The newly formed center aims to foster interdisciplinary research including diverse fields such as linguistics, developmental and experimental psychology, and neuroscience.

Current Research

Research results from labs across the world shed light on how the child accomplishes the immense task of language acquisition. They leave us in awe of the intellectual accomplishment of each and every child. In her book, Child Language: Acquisition and Growth, published in 2006, Dr. Lust summarizes many of these results. A few of the major discoveries are highlighted below.

Already at birth, even before they speak or understand language, infants begin processing the speech stream around them in order to determine the sounds of the language (phonology), and the form of the phrases and sentences of the language (syntax). By the time they are 12 months of age, they will have ‘cracked the code’ for many of these properties as they get ready to launch into their first produced words. Here they will show they are mapping what they know about the form of language to what language means (semantics). Over the first 12 months, the infant is conducting many different analyses of the speech stream, working on all the dimensions of language at once (phonology, syntax, semantics.)
Once children begin producing their first words and then combining them into sentences, they will show a complex and abstract ability to map between the sounds of language and its meaning. For example, experimental research has shown that children understand ambiguity in language (multiple possible meanings) and that they are constrained against making random ‘mistakes’ with language. When the English experiment shown in the sidebar was replicated with Chinese children in Taiwan, the results were similar, suggesting biological foundations for this knowledge. (Foley et al., 2003; Guo et al., 1996)
By the time the child is about 3 years old, she or he will have mastered much of the basic system of the language around them.
Children are creative with language. They may make certain ‘errors’ compared to adult language, e.g., the child who calls fruits and vegetables all ‘apples’, but these ‘errors’ are common among normally developing children. In fact, they show the child being abstract, categorical and creative with the language they are working on around them (Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 1999).

Children understand many meanings of a sentence. For example, given a sentence like “Oscar (O) bites his banana and Bert (B) does too,” four possible interpretations are possible; (1) O bites O’s banana and B bites B’s banana, (2) O bites O’s banana and B bites O’s banana, (3) O bites B’s banana and B bites B’s banana, and (4) O bites Ernie’s (a 3rd persons) and B bites Ernie’s banana. However, there are six impossible interpretations as well such as “O bites B’s banana and B bites O’s banana.” Experiments show that children understand the multiple meanings of such sentences, but do not form the incorrect meanings. (Foley, et al., 2003, Guo et al., 1996).

Research on Multilingualism in Children

In the CLAL, in conjunction with the VCLA, several research projects are underway which study various aspects of the development of bilingualism/ multilingualism in the young child. One set of studies involves longitudinal case studies of several young children acquiring English for the first time at 3 years of age through immersion in local nursery schools, such as the Cornell Early Childhood Center at Cornell as well as others. Results show that children learning a second language in an immersion setting show an overall success rate of grammatical knowledge similar to English monolinguals. Initial deficit in vocabulary (word learning) was followed by a fast pace of development, ultimately reaching the monolingual mean. Children’s pragmatic competence (e.g., the ability to initiate or join a conversation with peers) progressed slowly during early exposure (e.g., 8th month) but at the later point (e.g., 18th month) considerable improvement over time and many similarities with English monolinguals were displayed.
Another path of research studies children who are developing bilingually and assesses the cognitive effects of bilingualism as compared to monolingualism. This research touches on the ongoing debate as to whether positive or negative cognitive consequences follow from dual or multiple language acquisition during early childhood. A series of research investigations led by Dr. Sujin Yang with children of 4 to 6 years of age and comparison adult groups have been conducted to learn whether learning two languages leads to beneficial outcomes in what is called, “executive function.” These cognitive features in children are of particular interest since they are responsible for selective and conscious cognitive processes to achieve goals in the face of distraction and play a key role in academic readiness and success in school settings (Blair & Razza, 2007, Diamond et al., 2007). Using a neuropsychological and behavioral measure with Korean-English bilinguals, results have already revealed that bilingualism enhances the development of executive attention and facilitates superior performance in bilinguals as compared to monolingual counterparts on executive attention test. (Yang and Lust 2005, 2007; Yang, 2007).
This collection of multilingualism projects, along with many research results from other labs across the world, affirms that children can learn more than one language and they will even do so naturally if surrounded by the languages (Espinosa, 2008; see Flynn, 2003 for third language acquisition). Although some parents and educators may have concerns about the potential for confusion, bilingual children do not suffer language confusion, language delay, or cognitive deficit (Werker, & Byes-Heinlein, 2008; Petitto & Holowka, 2002; Yang & Lust, 2005; Yang, 2007). The mystery of first language acquisition is intensified when we realize that a child can and does naturally acquire more than one language at once.
Tips for parents

♦ Surround the child with as much rich language and language exchange as possible, beginning from birth.

♦ Children learn not only from language you address to them, but from language they overhear around them (Au, Knightly, Jun, & Oh, 2002). Linguistic interaction, can add positive effects on linguistic development.

♦ Although exposure to language is essential, explicit “drilling” is not needed for the normally developing child; parents will not be ‘teaching’ the child so much as the child will discover language; they are as one scholar put it “spontaneous apprentices” (Miller, 1976).

♦ Read to children, encourage them to talk about what is read, and surround them with language through literacy.

♦ Share with your child the joy of words and language.
Raising a Bilingual Child

♦ Cognitive advantages follow from becoming bilingual. These cognitive advantages can contribute to your child’s future academic success.

♦ Social advantages follow from becoming bilingual. By fostering bilingualism (or multilingualism) in your child you make it possible for them to access other cultures and other worlds in ways monolinguals cannot.

♦ Learning and exposure to another language at an early age may produce the best outcomes in attaining native-like language proficiency

♦ Developing bilingualism (or multilingualism) does not impede language acquisition in any language.

♦ Conscious planning and effort may be needed in order to provide the child with an environment that will support more than one language.

♦ Surround the child with more than one language through conversations and social groups using different languages; the earlier the better.

♦ Maintain home (heritage) language when a 2nd language is being learned outside the home.

♦ Expose children to live multilingual settings, often with peers (e.g., play groups).

♦ Provide fun and interactive language learning environments in both languages, often with peers (e.g., music, dance, and film).

♦ Promote reading and story-telling in multiple languages.

♦ Maintain a positive attitude toward languages/cultures children learn.

♦ You do not need to maintain a one person-one language situation; your child will sort out the languages by themselves.

Worried About Delays or Dysfunctions?

♦ Be certain that your child’s hearing has been tested

♦ Be aware that there are large differences in the rate at which children reach their first words or first sentences. These developmental differences are generally perfectly normal.

♦ During the first few years of life, it takes time and a lot of cognitive work on the part of your child to acquire languages. This is essentially challenging since your child is acquiring everything else about the world at the same time.

♦Consult a professional if you are in doubt or concerned.
Further Resources

Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory

Virtual Center for Language Acquisition

Multilingualism Matters

Bilingual Families Web Site
References

Au, T. K., Knightly, L. M., Jun, S.-A., & Oh, J. S. (2002). Overhearing a language during childhood. Psychological Science, 13, 238-243.

Blair, C. & Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten, Child Development, 78, 647-663.

Diamond, A., Barnett, W.S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive control, Science, 318, 1387-1388.

Espinosa, L. (2008). Challenging Common Myths about Young English Language Learners. (FDC Policy Brief, Advancing PI-3, No. 8). New York: Foundation for Child Development.

Flynn, S. (2003). Simultaneous vs Sequential Third Language Acquisition Among Children. In Cohen, J., McAlister, K., Rolstad, K., & MacSwan, J. (eds). Selected Papers from the 4th International Symposium on Bilignualism (pp. 768-774). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Foley, C., Nunez del Prado, Q., Barbier, I & Lust, B. (2003). Knowledge of Variable Binding in VP Ellipsis: Language Acquisition Research and Theory Converge. Syntax, 6(1), 52-83.

Golinkoff, R.M. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (1999). How Babies Talk. New York: Penguin Books.

Guo, F., Foley, C., Chien, Y-C, Lust, B. & Chiang, C-P. (1996). Operator Variable Binding in the Initial State. A Cross linguistic study of VP ellipsis structures in Chinese and English. In
Lucus, A. & Paul, W. (eds). Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale 25(1), 3-34.

Lust, B. (2006). Child Language: Acquisition and Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, G. A. (1976). Spontaneous apprentices: Children and language. New York: Seabury Press.

Petitto, L. A., & Holowka, S. (2002). Evaluating attributions of delay and confusion in young bilinguals: Special insights from infants acquiring a signed and spoken language. Sign Language Studies, 3, 4-33.

Werker, J. & Byes-Heinlein, K. (2008). Bilingualism in Infancy: First Steps in Perception and Comprehension. Trends in Cognitive Science, 12(4), 144-151.

Yang, S. & Lust, B. (2004). Testing effects of bilingualism on executive attention: comparison of cognitive performance on two non-verbal tests. Poster session presented at the Boston University Conference on Language Development 29, Boston, MA. Retrieved from http://128.197.86.186/posters/29/YangBUCLD2004.pdf

Yang, S. & Lust, B. (2007). Cross-linguistic differences in cognitive effects due to bilingualism: Experimental study of lexicon and executive attention in two typologically distinct language groups. Proceedings of the Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD) 31. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Yang, S. (2007). Impacts of Early Childhood Bilingualism on the Development of Executive Attention: Evidence from the Attention Network Test (ANT). Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University.

Yip, V. & Matthews, S. (2007). The Bilingual Child: Early Development and Language Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Recommended Readings

Baker, C. (2000). The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals: An introduction for professionals. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Bialystok, E. & Hakuta, K. (1995). In Other Words: The science and psychology of second-language acquisition. New York: Harper Collins.

Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with Two Languages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pearson, B.Z. (2008). Raising a Bilingual Child: A step-by-step guide for parents. New York: Living Language.

Tabors, P.O. (1997). One Child, Two Languages. A Guide for preschool Educators. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.

Human Development Today e-News

Human Development Outreach & Extension

Kimberly Kopko, Ph.D., Extension Associate

What is clear to anyone who enters Dr. Marianella Casasola’s Infant Studies Laboratory, or “baby lab” is that Dr. Casasola is very interested in babies. Except for the computers and other technical equipment, the space resembles an open, baby-friendly play area. And it is in this space that Dr. Casasola, Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University, conducts her research on infant cognitive development and early word learning in pre-verbal babies.

Dr. Casasola’s research provides a window into how babies learn and develop language skills during the first 2 years of life. Her findings demonstrate that infants are learning about their language well before they speak their language. Parents of infants no doubt agree that babies recognize words before they are able to verbalize words. What is apparent from Casasola’s research, however, is the degree of complexity that babies possess in learning language and how the use of novel words and events promotes learning.

Dr. Casasola is particularly interested in the interaction between cognition and language development during the first 2 years of development and there are 3 questions that drive her research: 1) How do babies learn? 2) How do babies develop language? and 3) How do the two areas intersect? Studying how infants learn and what they already know requires an understanding of the manner in which babies develop abstract concepts, generalize information from one situation to another, and form categories, all of which provide coherence to a baby’s world. Studying how infants develop language requires an understanding of how babies develop words for objects and actions. Finally, in collaboration with colleagues and students, Dr. Casasola examines how language and learning interact in everyday circumstances. She seeks to understand how babies learn words and how learning language helps to solidify what babies already know and, perhaps, how it leads babies to learn what they may not have learned otherwise.

Research Studies

One strategy that adults use to develop babies’ language acquisition is labeling. By labeling an object, a parent or caregiver identifies the names of specific objects for the baby. For example, when a baby picks up a ball, a parent may respond, “that’s a ball.” Researchers assert that babies’ early vocabulary development is stimulated when adults label items, thereby facilitating babies’ ability to associate words with objects.

In one experiment, Casasola & Bhagwat examined the extent to which labeling objects helps babies learn. In this study, 18-month-old infants were shown 4 different videos of a support relation (two objects placed together): a car placed on top of another car, a cup placed on an inverted bowl, a Duplo figure placed on a Duplo car, and a turtle placed on a pole. One group of infants heard a novel word to describe the objects occupying the space as they viewed these events: “Wow! She puts it toke.” A second group of infants received the same novel word as a count noun (“Wow! It is a toke.”) A third group simply viewed the events in silence to establish how infants attend to the support relation when not hearing any language.

Results showed that infants who heard the novel spatial word looked significantly longer at the novel relation than the familiar spatial relation indicating that the infants learned to recognize the support relation as familiar relative to the containment relation. In contrast, infants who viewed the events in silence and most infants who heard the novel word as a count noun did not. The results demonstrate that providing a label to an event helps infants learn about what they see. Providing a spatial word, even an unfamiliar one, can aid 18-month-old infants in recognizing a support relation as familiar.

Infants learn language according to a highly organized set of rules containing five systems: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics (see further detail at end). Semantics refers to the meaning system. The meanings of words or actions may differ across languages and vary according to what’s relevant to a baby’s native language. For example, in the English language there is a distinction between the categories of in and on such that we say the clown is in the car and the tire is on the car. Whereas in the Korean language, there is no distinction between in and on, but rather a distinction between loose-fitting events and tight-fitting events with a loose-fitting event being similar to on and a tight-fitting event being similar to in.

In a separate experiment, Casasola and her colleagues explored whether 21-22 month-old toddlers who were learning the English language could acquire a novel word to describe a “tight-fit” relationship between two objects, a relationship that is identified by a word in Korean language, kkita, but not by a word in the English language. In the training session, four pairs of objects were selected to depict actions resulting in a tight-fit relation. Results from this study indicate that toddlers can map and generalize a novel word onto actions resulting in a tight-fit relation, despite having limited experience with the novel word. These findings indicate that toddlers can “apply” an unfamiliar word to an event that is similar to one they recognize (i.e. tight-fitting is similar to in) and provide insight into how young English word learners begin to form language-specific categories to represent spatial relationships.

Despite the number of different languages in the world, infants learn language in a universal, relatively predictable pattern. Milestones in infant language development include communicating at birth by crying, cooing at 1-2 months, babbling at 6 months, use of gestures and word comprehension at 8-12 months, speaking first words at 13 months, a rapid growth in vocabulary by 18 months, and significant increased word understanding and speaking of two-word utterances such as “my toy” between 18-24 months.

Parents and caregivers are the most significant adults that babies interact with and communicate their needs to. The ways in which adults respond to and engage babies will aid language development during these very important early years.

Tips For Parents

1) Attach words to objects. Labeling helps babies learn. Sometimes it is easier to engage your child if you label what is already the focus of their interest rather than trying to redirect their attention.

2) Use words to describe your actions: “Mommy is putting the milk in the refrigerator.”

3) Use words to describe your child’s actions: “You are putting the blue car next to the red car.”

4) Explore books with your baby (board books are ideal for infants and toddlers) and use action words to describe the story.

5) Read to your child! Reading not only promotes language development, but also creates special time with you and your child.

6) Talk to your baby often. Research demonstrates that frequent communication with infants and toddlers is directly related to the amount of words babies learn.

7) Act out songs (e.g., “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”). Babies will learn to share in the songs' movements with you (and may help them learn new words).

8) Play word games such as “Pat a Cake.” Doing so will facilitate infants' ability to hear and learn language in a playful context.

9) Understand that many factors affect language development—for example, simultaneous exposure to more than one language and a focus on physical activities, like walking, may briefly divert your baby’s attention from learning to speak.

10) Have fun with your child. As Dr. Casasola’s colleagues note in the title of one of their books, Einstein Never Used Flashcards! Your child does not need to either. Children learn by engaging with others and with their surroundings. Simply spending a little time playing with your baby will help promote their development.

For Further Information

Cornell Infant Studies Laboratory: http://www.human.cornell.edu/che/HD/CISL/index.cfm

Family Reading Partnership http://www.familyreading.org/

Speech and Language Developmental Milestones: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/speechandlanguage.asp

Use of baby DVDs and videos and infants’ language development: http://uwnews.washington.edu/ni/article.asp?articleID=35898

Zero to Three: Early Language and Literacy: http://www.zerotothree.org/site/PageServer?pagename=key_language

The Sounds of Language (from the National Center for Family Literacy): http://www.famlit.org/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=gtJWJdMQIsE&b=1988675&ct=2084703

Five Systems of Language Rules

Phonology—refers to the sound system of language. A phoneme is the most basic unit of sound that affects meaning. The word cat, for example, has 3 phonemes: /c/ /a/ and /t/ that when combined produce the word “cat.”

Morphology—refers to the units of meaning in a language. Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning that cannot be broken into smaller meaningful parts. The word work, for example, cannot be broken down and still have meaning. However, it can be combined with the suffix ing to form the word “working” which consists of two morphemes.

Syntax—refers to the way words are ordered and combined into appropriate phrases and sentences. For example, the word order “Dan kicked the ball” has a different meaning than “The ball kicked Dan.”

Semantics—refers to how the meaning of language is created by the use of words and sentences. Every word has a semantic characteristic. For example, sapling and tree share semantic qualities, but they differ in degree by size.

Pragmatics—refers to a set of rules for language use in different contexts. Pragmatics is concerned with social interaction and effective communication. For example, a child learns to speak politely to his teacher at school (“May I play with the blocks?”) but may not speak politely to his younger sister at home (“Those blocks are mine, not yours!”).

References

Casasola, M., & Bhagwat, J. (2007). Does a novel word facilitate 18-month-olds’ categorization of a spatial relation? Child Development, 78, 1818-1829.

Casasola, M., Wilbourn, M.K., & Yang, S. (2006). Can English-learning toddlers acquire and generalize a novel spatial word? First Language, 26(2), 187-205.

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