Children don't say their first words until around the time of their first birthday, but research using experimental methods has shown that infants learn a great deal about their language before they start saying words. Researchers now believe that infants learn to perceive their language's speech sound categories (consonants and vowels) in the first year, and they learn to recognize dozens of words (even if they don't know what they mean). This project will help us determine how this learning happens, and how it helps children make further progress in language learning over the second year. The project begins by following up on the investigator's discovery that even infants as young as 6 months already know what some words mean; using recently developed techniques, it will be possible to tell whether infants learn abstract words as well as more concrete ones, and what kinds of learning mechanisms may be responsible. The project will also support study of the acoustics of infant-directed speech and testing of computational models of how infants might learn vowels, starting from a theory stating that knowing words helps infants learn speech sound categories. A second set of experiments will test how infants and toddlers learn to tell when two different-sounding words really are different words (like ten and tin) and when they are the same (like ten spoken in different linguistic environments). Thus, the project will trace the development of speech sound perception and interpretation from early infancy into the second year, aiming for mechanistic explanations of the child's first steps in language acquisition.

Public Health Relevance

Early development of speech perception and speech categorization has a lifelong impact on language; language delays, 'late talking', and difficulties in learning to read often spring from abnormal mental processing of phonology (the language's speech sound system). The project's goal of characterizing early language development as accurately as possible will inform the causes of these disorders and will help guide decisions about the timing of treatment for hearing loss.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
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Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BBBP-T (05)M)
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Alvarez, Ruben P
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University of Pennsylvania
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Bergelson, Elika; Swingley, Daniel (2018) Young Infants' Word Comprehension Given An Unfamiliar Talker or Altered Pronunciations. Child Dev 89:1567-1576
Swingley, Daniel; Humphrey, Colman (2018) Quantitative Linguistic Predictors of Infants' Learning of Specific English Words. Child Dev 89:1247-1267
Adriaans, Frans; Swingley, Daniel (2017) Prosodic exaggeration within infant-directed speech: Consequences for vowel learnability. J Acoust Soc Am 141:3070
Bergelson, Elika; Aslin, Richard N (2017) Nature and origins of the lexicon in 6-mo-olds. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 114:12916-12921
Swingley, Daniel (2016) Two-year-olds interpret novel phonological neighbors as familiar words. Dev Psychol 52:1011-23
Bergelson, Elika; Swingley, Daniel (2015) Early Word Comprehension in Infants: Replication and Extension. Lang Learn Dev 11:369-380
Dautriche, Isabelle; Swingley, Daniel; Christophe, Anne (2015) Learning novel phonological neighbors: Syntactic category matters. Cognition 143:77-86
Quam, Carolyn; Swingley, Daniel (2014) Processing of lexical stress cues by young children. J Exp Child Psychol 123:73-89
Bergelson, Elika; Swingley, Daniel (2013) The acquisition of abstract words by young infants. Cognition 127:391-7
Bergelson, Elika; Swingley, Daniel (2013) Young toddlers' word comprehension is flexible and efficient. PLoS One 8:e73359

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