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Early Language Learning

 
We often have questions about what babies know or understand very early in life. Babies can’t answer these questions using words but they can tell us a lot by what they look at and for how long. By using the habituation technique we are able to find answers to some interesting research questions and add to our understanding of infant cognition.
We often have questions about what babies know or understand very early in life.

Babies can’t answer these questions using words but they can tell us a lot by what they look at and for how long.

One of the research methods that we use is called habituation. We start a habituation study by showing babies something interesting (a video or a puppet show).

At first babies are interested, but they gradually lose interest and start looking away. We repeat this process until the official criterion for short looking time has been met and we are certain that they are bored. In technical terms, we establish that babies have habituated to the stimulus.

Then, in the test trials we show babies something slightly different. If babies realize that we are showing them a new event, they will become interested and start looking longer again. Infants’ interest and disinterest can tell us what they are paying attention to.

Thanks to this technique, we were able to find answers to some interesting research questions and add to our understanding of infant cognition!

Check out these two studies that used the habituation paradigm:
 

What do babies understand about speakers of different languages?

  • What we wanted to know: Do infants who are learning multiple languages understand that words are specific to a particular language? What do infants understand about new words taught by someone who speaks their own language compared to those taught by someone who speaks a different language?
 
  • What we did: We first showed babies videos of an English and French speaker singing common nursery rhymes. Then we showed a video of a person naming an unfamiliar object until the baby got bored. Once we established that the baby was definitely bored, we changed the video slightly to see what they found interesting.
 
  • What we found: Preliminary results suggest that multi-lingual infants are really surprised when two speakers from different languages use the same word to label an object. By 13 months, multi-lingual infants seem to have a well-developed understanding of the conventional nature of language –that the meaning of a word is tied to a particular language community. This finding might play a fundamental role in our understanding of language development.
 

Do babies generalize object labels & preferences across different speakers?

  • What we wanted to know: Previous research has shown that infants do not expect two people to have the same preferences. We wanted to find out if 12-13 month old infants expected that a person will prefer objects of the same kind (if I like chocolate ice cream, I will also like vanilla). We also wanted to find out whether infants understood that an object name (e.g. ‘ball’) can be generalized across objects that differ in colour (red ball, blue ball), as well as across different people.
 
  • What we did: Babies first saw videos of either a) a person showing preference for one object over another object or b) videos of one person giving a new name for one of two objects. Once the baby got bored, the videos were changed slightly and we paid attention to what the baby was interested in.
 
  • What we found: Results showed that at 13 months, babies have a basic understanding of how diverse a person’s preferences can be (i.e. just because someone likes chocolate ice cream, doesn’t mean she would also like vanilla ice cream). 13 month olds also understand that object labels are generalized across people as well as objects of the same kind (i.e. if I called a blue ball a ‘ball’, the baby would expect that you would also call it a ball, and even if it were yellow, we would both call it a ball).

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Source: This article was written by Early Learning Lab.
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