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Photo by Jonathan Goodman
Mother and baby participating in experiment

What do babies think before they start talking?

By Melanie Catania
Published: July 22, 2004

Babies as young as five months old make distinctions about categories that their parents do not, revealing new information about how language develops in humans. The research by Sue Hespos, assistant professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, and Elizabeth Spelke, professor of psychology at Harvard University, was published in the July 22 issue of Nature in the article “Conceptual precursors to language.”

“It's been shown in previous studies that adults actually categorize things differently based on what language they speak,” Hespos said. “So, if language is influencing adults' thought, one of our questions was, what's going on with preverbal infants? Do children think before they speak?

“Language capitalizes on a pre-existing system of ‘I live in a 3-D world, I know how objects behave and interact,'” she continued. “This pre-existing ability suggests that children do think before they speak. ”

Previous research found that infants are sensitive to the acoustic variations in languages that adults can no longer hear. For instance, an adult native-English speaker will not hear all of the sounds of Korean and vice versa. Infants hear these subtleties and lose this awareness as their language skills develop over the first year of life.

Photo by Jonathan Goodman  
Sue Hespos

Click below to listen to an interview.

Hespos and Spelke were interested in finding out if infants are sensitive to concepts as they are to sounds, and what impact language has on how we think about our environment.

The example they used to explore these questions was differences between how different languages describe space. For example, the distinction between a tight fit versus a loose fit is marked in Korean but not in English. A cap on a pen would be a tight fit relationship, while a pen on a table would be a loose fit relationship. English does not mark this distinction in the same way, instead emphasizing the in versus on relationship: the coffee is in the mug or the mug is on the table.

Hespos and Spelke tested whether five-month-old infants from native English-speaking homes detected the tight versus loose fit concept. The tests were based on infants' tendency to look at events that they find to be novel and to look away when they get bored. Infants were shown examples of objects being placed inside containers until the time they looked at the containers decreased, indicating that they were bored. They were then shown tight and loose fit relationships. The researchers found that the babies looked at the objects longer when there was a change between tight or loose fit, illustrating that they were detecting the Korean concept.

Hespos and Spelke also conducted the experiment with adults to confirm that English-speaking adults do not make the tight versus loose fit distinction.

“Adults ignore tight fit versus loose fit and pay attention to in versus on,” Hespos said. “Adults were glossing over the distinction that the babies were actually detecting.”

Previous research found that non-human primates also make distinctions between both in versus on and tight fit versus loose fit, leading Hespos and Spelke to hypothesize that these conceptual relationships exist independent of language.

Hespos is a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development and the Vanderbilt Vision Research Center . The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Sue Hespos' online biography

Elizabeth Spelke's online biography


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