The Weight of a Name: How Infants Decide What to Learn

baby_talk_big_jpegWhat’s in a word? Apparently, quite a lot, especially when that word is giving a name to an action.

A new study from Northwestern University has shown that 14-month-old infants place a lot of stock in the naming of things. By the time they’ve reached that age, infants realize that things with names have meaning. That is, the presence of a name indicates that the thing is something worth noticing, and even imitating.

In the experiment, the researchers tried to get infants to do something weird. Something that they haven’t really seen adults do before. They tried to get infants to turn on a push-button light with their foreheads.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t think that 14-month-old infants have the ability to pick up on small cues. But also like me, you’d be wrong. Previous research has shown that infants are quite perceptive, especially when it comes to turning on lights with a new body part. In a previous experiment, results showed that when an adult turned on a light with their forehead with their hands completely free, the infants were likely to mimic the behavior. However, when the experimenters did the same thing while clutching a blanket over their shoulders – meaning their hands weren’t free to turn on the light – the infants tended to ignore the behavior.

And that tendency was strong.

In the new experiment, researchers first replicated this result. With the experimenter’s hands occupied, only 23 percent of infants mimicked the behavior and tried to turn the light on with their foreheads. But with the experimenter’s hands free and placed on either side of the switch, infants tried to mimic the behavior 71 percent of the time. Quite the difference.

Building on that result, the experimenters wanted to find whether or not naming the action would have any affect. Have infants learned to take that level of information from language at such an early age? Does the convention of naming something signal to babies learning the way the world works that this is something worth noticing and mimicking?

In short, yes.

In the new experiment, researchers recreated most everything about the hands-occupied-with-a-blanket trial from the previous experiment, with one notable exception. For some trials, they asked the infant to, “Hey, watch this! Look at what I’m going to do!” And for other trials, they instead used the phrasing, “Look, I’m going to blick the light! Watch me blick the light!” Then, after a few minutes of time in the waiting area, the infants were brought back, given the light to play with, and asked, “Can you do it too?”

When the infants were simply called attention to the action, just 17 percent of them tried to imitate it, similar to the previous hands-occupied-by-a-blanket experiment. However, when a name was introduced to the action – blick – 58 percent of them tried to do it themselves.

So it’s pretty clear. When learning what to mimic from their teachers of life – i.e. their parents – infants take some cues by actions that are important enough to be given a name.

Pretty smart for a newborn.

The study “Shall We Blick?”: Novel Words Highlight Actors’ Underlying Intentions for 14-Month-Old Infants” was published in Developmental Psychology by Sandra R. Waxman, the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology at Northwestern. Marian L. Chen, a post-doctoral researcher in the Child Cognition Lab at Boston University, is also co-author of the study.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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