Infants go to school early on grammar

December 02, 2002

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University psychology professor says that infants appear to understand much more than they are given credit for.

"Infants appear to learn words and grammar simultaneously," says George Hollich, director of the Infant Language Lab and assistant professor of psychological sciences. "This underscores the importance of talking to them, early and often."

Hollich is studying how infants learn language in the Infant Language Lab, a component of the Purdue Baby Lab in the School of Liberal Arts. The Baby Lab is co-directed by Hollich and Barbara Younger-Rossmann, who also is director of the Infant Cognition Lab. Babies, ages 5 months to 2 years, participate in both labs.

"If you consider the almost infinite number of words, as well as the potential mappings between words and meanings, learning a language ought to be impossible," says Hollich, whose research is funded by Purdue. "Our studies are determining how infants discover words in the fluent stream of speech, how they learn the meaning of those words and how they come to understand grammar."

It had been believed that children learn language step-by-step from one word to the next, but Hollich's research indicates that infants may be learning words and grammar simultaneously. For example, in one study Hollich is attempting to find out if infants understand just words, or if they can understand the whole sentence.

"Do they understand, 'Where is the flower?' versus 'What hit the flower?' or are they hearing 'Blah, blah, blah flower?'" Hollich says.

To address this issue a baby is shown a series of short animated sequences, such as an apple repetitively colliding with a flower. Then another screen will show the apple in one corner and the flower in the other. A voice asks "What hit the flower? "

Because these babies don't talk, their answers are recorded by how long they gaze at each item. If the baby looks longer at the apple it shows the child understands the question. If the baby looks at the flower, it shows they identify the word "flower," but don't comprehend the question. By 15 months, children do look directly at the correct image.

"This finding is surprising considering that most experts would predict that infants should look at the object specifically mentioned in the question, and infants will do this, but only if the question is 'Where is the flower?' Hollich says. "Thus, from the earliest ages tested, infants are demonstrating a surprising amount of linguistic savvy. This shows kids understand more than just a few words, and that babies understand grammar much earlier than previously thought."

Hollich's other research focuses on the ways children learn to recognize their native language. Hollich is collaborating with a researcher from the University of Postdam in Berlin. The question in this study is whether the melody of speech, regardless of the specific words, is noticed by infants who hear only English.

Each infant hears two types of German passages, one set of passages has a melody (or prosody) similar to English, even though the words aren't. Other passages had a very different and more typically German prosody.

"The results still need to be evaluated, but we think that English babies will like the passages with English prosody, while we know the German babies like the passages that are more typically German sounding," Hollich says. "In this way, we will see if infants can use the melody of speech in early language learning, which might help explain why all cultures tend to talk in a very funny way to their children -- an exaggerated sing-song melody that researchers have coined infant-directed speech."

Another study involves streaming, in which children find words in speech. These experiments indicate that infants can use what they see to help them follow a person speaking in what can often be a noisy and distracting environment.

"Kids can use what they see to hear better," Hollich says. "When you talk to the child, let them see your face, because my research suggests that seeing the person's face is very important to help infants hear, especially when it is noisy. In general, visual information is more important than a lot of researchers would have thought."

About 20 to 40 children participate weekly at the language lab, and each study requires 32 to 50 babies.

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: George Hollich, (765) 494-2224, ghollich@purdue.edu

Related Web site:

Purdue Baby Labs http://www.psych.purdue.edu/~babylab/

A publication-quality photograph is available at ftp://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/hollich.babytalk.jpeg.

Purdue University

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