Role of experience links language and cognition in infants
by Thom Bush
on 24 May 2016
those early discussions with mum

Given the massive rate of neural learning in babies and toddlers, it is always encouraging to hear how we can advance our young one's ability to learn. Anyone who has a child knows there is a lot going on in their little minds, even though we may have no idea what it is? So, anything that can assist parents in helping their child's development is worth a mention. It seems that the sooner, and perhaps clearer, we communicate with our young, the better!

What is of interest in this study, is the link to animal sounds (language) and human language. Makes you wonder what effect the usual sounds we make to babies is, e.g. goo goo ga ga coochy coo etc? It seems we may just be better talking to babies normally! Perhaps reading simple stories could greatly advance their cognitive development?

I guess, for the sake of making learning simple, the logical, analytical part of a baby's brain doesn't come online until around 5 or 6 and that is what makes them so intriguing, if not downright funny! Nevertheless, they are making sense of things one way or another, long before their first breath. At birth they have a relatively empty database, if only in terms of context, but, nevertheless, a very effective operating system. Parents communicate with their newborns in many ways, of course they use words but the main communication is more instinctive and intuitive. For sure the baby doesn't understand the words but it understands tone, inflection etc. This is mostly because of the pre-natal period, where their awareness of the world outside is experienced through their senses, as well as the emotions and feeling received from their mother's emotional states. At birth the infant brain is approx. 25% of the volume of the adult brain and reaches around 90% by age 5 or 6. It's ability to function logically is, therefore, a collaboration of its environmental and personal experience. So, perhaps, starting to talk to and around your baby, asap, may help them make sense, more quickly, of the pre-natal sounds they heard and, in the process, aid cognitive development?

The research:

Even before infants understand their first words, they have already begun to link language and thought. Listening to language boosts infant cognition. New evidence provides even greater insight into the crucial role of language exposure in the infants' first months of life, according to Northwestern University research. 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. At 3 months old, listening to both human and nonhuman primate (lemur) vocalizations supports infants' ability to form categories, a building block of cognition. But by 6 months, the link has narrowed, with only human vocalizations supporting categorization. Infants' initially broad link to cognition is sculpted by their experience.

Northwestern researchers sought to understand what mechanisms underlie this rapid tuning process and document in a new study 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 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, 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. "Although experience may play little, if any role, in picking out the broad set of signals that infants first link to cognition, here we show 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," Waxman said.


Story Source:
The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Northwestern University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:
1. Danielle R. Perszyk, Sandra R. Waxman. Listening to the calls of the wild: The role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants. Cognition, 2016; 153: 175 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.05.004