A lot is unknown about how infants begin to connect names with objects, a critical skill for later language development. A new study by Indiana University researchers offers a fresh perspective on how infants reach this milestone in human development.
The work, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is led by Linda Smith, Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington, and Elizabeth Clerkin, a postdoctoral researcher in the department.
Before they can speak, infants between the ages of 7 and 11 months begin to pair the words they hear with the everyday objects in their surroundings. To explain this phenomenon, the field of developmental psychology has focused on “naming moments,” when the names and objects are presented to the infant at the same time.
However, the names of objects are rarely spoken in tandem with the objects, and the brain’s hippocampal memory system, which can form strong memories from singular events, may not be mature enough in infants for them to form durable memories of those rare direct co-occurrences between objects and names.
“Our study shows that a different perspective is potentially needed to explain how infants are making these links by looking at the time outside naming moments,” Clerkin said. “We focus on understanding how infants are developing their memories for the objects and categories more generally.”
In other words, early language learning may be tied to memory representations that build up over time, rather than to repeated connections between words and objects.
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