Making sense of `mommy'

EDUCATION BEAT

Recognition: Johns Hopkins researchers have found that babies as young as 6 months can associate sounds with meaning.

April 04, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

LOOK AT IT from the baby's point of view.

That's what Johns Hopkins University psychologist Peter Jusczyk and his colleagues and students are doing as they study how infants develop language.

In a sense, the Hopkins scientists are dancing the limbo with their research on what happens in babies' brains. Last year, when I visited their Homewood campus laboratory, I wrote about experiments showing that babies can remember words spoken repeatedly to them at the tender age of 9 months.

Now they've lowered the bar to six months. Hopkins experiments reported in the journal Psychological Science show that babies that young -- or that old, if you prefer -- can put together sound and specific meaning.

Six months, of course, is at least a year before children begin to speak -- and years before they learn to read and write. But the Hopkins experiments may have implications for reading and other language skills, according to Jusczyk and his colleagues.

The new experiment uses two words that most children hear from birth: "Mommy" and "Daddy."

Jusczyk and his team used 24 parent volunteers and their 6-month-old infants. They videotaped each baby's mother and father and then played the videos on a pair of TV monitors as the child sat on the mother's lap, able to view both screens.

A recorded voice spoke "Mommy" and "Daddy" as the researchers observed the "looking time" the child gave to each monitor. (To ensure objectivity, the voice was synthesized to approximate that of a 10-year-old; to avoid involuntary guiding on the part of the mother, her eyes were covered by a Darth Vader-looking mask.)

"What we found," says Jusczyk, "is that the infants were much more likely to look at [the videos of] their mothers when they heard `Mommy,'" and to look at their fathers when they heard `Daddy.' "Still, though we knew there was recognition, we still didn't know whether the recognition applied to that particular parent and not to others," he said.

So the researchers brought in 24 different babies as a control group and repeated the experiment with the same videos. "We found the infants didn't associate the words with either parent," says Jusczyk.

Jusczyk is cautious -- as scientists tend to be -- about the meaning of this finding, but he suggests that "language might start this way," that is, with a baby assigning a sound to a specific object. Babies learn their own names first, as early as 4 months, he believes, then the names of familiar objects around them, such as Mommy and Daddy.

"We're playing around," he says, "with the idea that language starts with a particular notion -- the notion of you -- and then expands as the child specifically identifies his parents and siblings. And then he has to learn that there are other girls and boys, moms and dads. He learns to put a label on groups of objects."

Jusczyk calls this "innately guided learning." Many animals possess it, he says. He's co-teaching a seminar, "Birds and Words," which examines the parallels between human language and bird song.

"The nice thing about birds," he says, "is that it's a lot easier to track hormonal development in bird brains."

What are the implications of the Hopkins research for reading?

"If we know that a child is associating sounds with meaning as early as 6 months," says graduate student Ruth Tincoff, who conducted the Mommy and Daddy experiments with Jusczyk, "we also know that when we show them pictures from story books at 8 or 9 months, they are starting to make some associations between those pictures and the sound patterns they're hearing."

Still, Jusczyk is doubtful about attempts by anxious parents to speed up the process of learning to read. "All it does in many cases is make kids' lives miserable." Although reading does have to be taught, he cautions, the brain may not be ready for the teaching before its time.

"You know, there have been studies showing that infants in deaf households watch their parents and siblings use sign language and then actually babble in sign language. This tells us that there's an aspect of language acquisition that is in some sense innate, that all of us are genetically programmed for language development."

Good sports about reading

To observe "Read Across America" last month, the Washington College lacrosse team in Chestertown put aside the sticks for an afternoon and read to some 300 students in Eastern Shore public schools.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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