Language cues can provide the "glue" that helps fasten
certain visual patterns into small children's memories,
according to results presented by a Johns Hopkins graduate
student at the 17th annual meeting of the American
Psychological Society, held May 26 to 29 in Los Angeles.
This new data provide insight into the long-debated
question of whether language affects thought.
Doctoral candidate Banchiamlack Dessalegn and her
mentor, Barbara Landau, the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor
in the Krieger School's Department of Cognitive Science,
tackled that question via a query of their own: Would
children who are given verbal cues while viewing mirror
image visual patterns remember them more accurately, and
longer, than would children who were not given those
The answer, it seems, is yes.
"We learned that language — in the form of
specific kinds of sentences spoken aloud — helped the
children remember the patterns by 'gluing' their properties
into memory," Dessalegn said. "We knew going in that
children are very poor at holding onto any visual memory of
objects that involve 'handedness,' meaning whether
something is facing left or right. Our results show that
this kind of visual memory can be made stronger if the
children are given a language mnemonic device, such as 'the
red part is on the left,' to stick that image into their
In their experiments with normal 4-year-old children,
Dessalegn and Landau displayed cards bearing red and green
vertical, horizontal and diagonal patterns that were mirror
images of one another. Half the children heard, "Look! This
is a blicket!" as they viewed the cards, but the other half
heard only, "Look!" The patterns then were whisked away and
three more cards appeared, only one of which bore the
original pattern the children had seen. Though the
investigators found that both groups performed better than
chance, those who did make errors committed the same one:
mistaking the original card for its mirror image.
"This showed us just how difficult it was for small
children to commit both color and location to memory
quickly," Landau said.
The second experiment examined whether giving the
children a verbal cue that specifically labeled color and
location would improve their performance. This time, when
they saw the pattern cards, the children heard "the red is
on the left." This group performed "reliably better" than
the first, Landau said.
"The improvement was most likely due to the presence
of relational language, which served as a mental pointer to
the children," Landau said. "The bottom line is that
language can help, but it has to be language that is
specific and helps the children bridge the time gap between
when they saw the pattern and when they could recognize it
Dessalegn explained it this way: "It's as if vision is
saying, 'I only need help with keeping track of the
location of each color,' and when language offers that
information, and only that information, it takes it."
This research was funded by the March of Dimes, the
National Science Foundation and the National Science
Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research
Dessalegn and Landau are in the process of conducting
the same research with patients with Williams syndrome, a
rare genetic anomaly that leaves people with good verbal
ability but poor visual-spatial skills.
"People with Williams syndrome have difficulty
distinguishing mirror images. We are finding that specific
verbal cues help them, too, which would actually lead to
new techniques to help them learn," Landau said.