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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 31, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 36
Language Cues Provide 'Glue' for Visual Learning in Children

Dessalegn, seated, and Landau

By Lisa De Nike

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 cues?

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 memories longer."

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 again."

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 Traineeship.

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.


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