This project aims to study how infants' early pointing gestures help them learn words. This work builds on the evidence that infants usually point before they are able to use words, and there is a robust correlation between the early use of pointing gestures and subsequent vocabulary growth. It is hypothesized that pointing may help word learning in two ways: (1) pointing may create an effective state for learning, so that labels are better learned when children point; and/or, (2) pointing may increase word learning opportunities.

Under the direction of Dr. Gros-Louis, Zhen Wu will conduct experiments with 14 to 20 month-old participants to evaluate these hypotheses. Experiment 1 will assess the role of pointing in forming word-object associations by labeling objects when infants point, or when they just look. If pointing is indicative of infants' particular readiness to learn, then infants would learn the word better when they point. By contrast, if pointing just establishes a moment that both the child and the partner attend to the same target, then infants may learn words equally well when a label is provided when they are looking at an object, regardless of whether they point or not. Experiment 2 will test the hypothesis that pointing increases word learning opportunities by observing parent-child social interactions in a pointing-eliciting environment.

This project is significant for several reasons. First, it will not only clarify the relationship between pointing and word learning, but also add to our understanding of how pointing helps word learning. Second, the research has wide applicability to education and societal benefits. Understanding the contribution of infant pointing gestures and caregiver responses can inform intervention programs for at-risk populations in addition to leading to recommendations for parenting to enable earlier language acquisition.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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William J. Badecker
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University of Iowa
Iowa City
United States
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