Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 1, 1996

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

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