On Research: Words Help Infants Make Category Connections Emil Venere ----------------------------------- Homewood News and Information New findings suggest that infants as young as 9 months use words to begin shaping their view of the world, arranging objects into mental categories in a process previously associated more with preschoolers than with mere babes. "Infants probably are, to some extent, capable of language; we just have to think about what we mean by infant language," said Marie Balaban, an assistant professor of psychology. Balaban and psychology professor Sandra Waxman at Northwestern University have been studying how babies organize objects into categories, such as types of animals. The infants were shown either toy cats, horses, bears or whales. If their category happened to be cats, a scientist would say: "See the feline? Do you like the feline?" The researcher talked with the slow, exaggerated enunciation that adults use when addressing babies. But at other times, instead of saying, "See the feline?" the experimenter would say, "See what I have? ... Do you like that?" She would omit any reference to the category of animal. The research clearly showed that hearing the word "feline" helped the babies learn that the toys belonged to the same category of animal. The infants did not as easily learn that the toys were alike when they were accompanied only by the question, "See what I have?" They tested 44 babies, showing each 9-month-old five toys from a specific category of animal. Half the babies were told the name of the animal, and the other half were simply asked, "See what I have?" They were allowed to look at and play with each toy for 15 seconds. After the fifth toy, the experimenter simultaneously brought out two more toys. One was a new animal in the same category the baby had just been shown, and the other toy was an animal from a completely different category. If the babies spent more time looking at the toy from the new category, that showed they had learned that the other toy was a member of a familiar category, so they naturally were more interested in the new category. The difference between the two groups of infants was significant: the infants who were earlier told the name of the familiar category preferred the new category 62 percent of the time, but the babies who were not told the animal names showed no significant preference for the novel category. The findings will be presented on April 20, during the International Conference on Infant Studies, in Providence, R.I. Previous research on how, and when, the brain begins connecting objects and words has focused on toddlers and preschool children. "I think our findings depart from convention in the sense that we are suggesting that words facilitate infants' object categorization at an age that is earlier than would have been expected," Balaban said. "We are suggesting that language has an influence on thinking, even at this young age." In related research, Waxman and Balaban arrived at similar results, but using different methods. Those results will be detailed in a paper to be published later this year in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. In that research, infants were shown pictures of different types of birds, pigs, dinosaurs and rabbits. The slides were sometimes accompanied by a woman's tape-recorded voice saying the name of the animal, again, in the slow and exaggerated enunciation adults use when speaking to babies. At other times, the slides were accompanied only by flat electronic tones. Still another study matched the images with a sound resembling a word, with the same slow enunciation, but with the sharp edges of speech filtered out so that what remained was a vague wordlike sound that would make little sense to an adult. The researchers discovered that the babies needed the animal names to learn that they were all members of the same category. When the slides were accompanied only by a tone, they did not as easily learn that the images were related. Further supporting that hypothesis, the nonsensical, but wordlike sounds had an effect similar to that of the real words; they enhanced the infants' ability to learn that the animal pictures represented a category. "The critical thing is that they are hearing this word with different pictures, and somehow it's helping them form a category," Balaban said. While the findings indicate that words help the brain learn the nature of objects, it isn't clear why it groups objects into categories.
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