Northwestern University researchers have found that even before infants understand their first words, they have already begun to link language and thought. Listening to language boosts infant cognition, and new evidence provides more insights into the crucial role of language exposure in an infant’s first months of life.
An article on the new study from Northwestern titled “Listening to the calls of the wild: The role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants” will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Cognition.
Prior research has found that infants come into the world equipped with an initially broad link, one that encompasses the communicative signals of both humans and nonhuman primates. According to Northwestern University, at 3 months old, listening to both human and nonhuman primate (lemur) vocalizations supports infants’ ability to form categories, a building block of cognition. However, by 6 months, that link has narrowed, with only human vocalizations supporting categorization. Infants’ initially broad link to cognition is sculpted by their experience.
The Northwestern study was an effort to understand what mechanisms underlie this rapid tuning process, and to explore the crucial role of experience as infants tune this link specifically to human language. In the experiments, the researchers found that merely exposing 6-month-old infants to nonhuman primate vocalizations permits them to preserve, rather than sever, their early link between these signals and categorization. Exposing infants to backward human speech — a signal that fails to support categorization in the first year of life — does not have this advantage.
“This new evidence illuminates the central role of early [language] experience as infants specify which signals, from an initially broad set, they will continue to link to core cognitive capacities,” said Danielle R. Perszyk, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in cognitive psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.
The research, which underscores the importance of language exposure in the first months of life, also has far-reaching implications for early language and cognitive development.
“It provides a unique vantage point from which to consider the intricate interface between capacities inherent in the human infant and the shaping force of experience,” said Sandra Waxman, PhD, senior author of the study, director of the Project on Child Development, faculty fellow in Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, and the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology at Northwestern.
The researchers report that this study shows that experience is essential in guiding infants, with increasing precision, to single out which signals from the initially privileged set they will continue to link to meaning and which they will tune out.
Source: Northwestern University
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