Watching the world in motion, babies take a first step toward language

September 15, 2011

Watching children on the playground, we see them run, climb, slide, get up, and do it all again. While their movements are continuous, we language-users can easily divide them up and name each one. But what about people—babies—who don't yet have words? How do they make sense of a world in motion?

An upcoming study in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, finds that infants at seven to nine months are able to slice up the flow of events, even before they start to speak. And the researchers believe they've identified the way that babies accomplish this feat.

Infants use "statistical learning"— they compute the likelihood that one event follows another and use that information to predict future events, says Sarah Roseberry, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. Based on these probabilities, infants find boundaries between events, a critical step for learning words. Roseberry collaborated in the study with Russell Richie, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Thomas Shipley of Temple University and Roberta Golinkoff of the University of Delaware.

In the experiment, 20 babies, half girls and half boys, watched a 4-minute video of 12 hand motions—such as crossed arms, palms together, or arms parallel—performed by a man whose face was blurred to filter out his eyes and emotions. The motions were performed continuously, with units of three hand motions always appearing together (crossed, palms, parallel). After they watched the video of continuous motion, the infants were shown videos of the hand motion units exactly as they'd seen them before (crossed, palms, parallel) or with the transitions between motions re-spliced at different points (circle, crossed, palms).

The experiment used the well-known fact that babies' gaze can tell you a lot about how they perceive things. In this case, the researchers watched for distinctions between familiar and novel movements. As expected, the babies looked significantly longer at the familiar videos—that is, the events that followed the statistical probabilities they'd learned—than at the re-spliced sequences.

Other research has shown that babies use statistics to find the boundaries between syllables in the they hear, and that they track probabilities in series of static pictures—say, a triangle, a diamond, and a square. But this study is the first to observe statistical learning with "continuous, dynamic events," say the authors.

Roseberry says the work adds to a growing understanding of the earliest building blocks of language. "Although these were between just 7 and 9 months of age, they were already dividing the world into events" using the "tool" of statistical learning. "It is these events that will be named with words," she continues. "A few months later, when they can hook up words to the events they see, they will begin to use language."

Explore further: Even before language, babies learn the world through sounds

Related Stories

Even before language, babies learn the world through sounds

July 11, 2011
It's not just the words, but the sounds of words that have meaning for us. This is true for children and adults, who can associate the strictly auditory parts of language -- vowels produced in the front or the back of the ...

Study links bilingual babies' vocabulary to early brain differentiation

August 29, 2011
Babies and children are whizzes at learning a second language, but that ability begins to fade as early as their first birthdays.

Recommended for you

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences?

July 26, 2017
No one really knows what happens when we die, but many people have stories to tell about what they experienced while being close to death. People who have had a near-death-experience usually report very rich and detailed ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.