SRCLD Presentation Details
Developing efficiency in understanding spoken language: How infants learn to listen for meaning
Anne Fernald -
Infants are often credited with “acquiring” new words, as if word learning occurred in an all-or-none fashion. But learning to understand a word is more like acquiring a skill than acquiring an object, with an emphasis on gradual mastery rather than possession. In our research with English- and Spanish-learning children, we use real-time measures of comprehension to explore how very young language learners develop speed and efficiency in interpreting spoken words and sentences as they unfold from moment to moment. Infants’ gaze patterns provide a window on their referential decisions, as they seek meaning in the words they are hearing in relation to the things they are looking at, all within a fraction of a second. Typically-developing infants respond reliably to increasing numbers of new words over the second year of life, and they also respond more rapidly and flexibly to the same words they began to learn months before, in more and more challenging linguistic contexts. At the same time, they learn to make use of language-specific semantic and morphosyntactic cues that enable them to apprehend meaning in speech even more quickly and effectively. But young children also vary substantially in their ability to interpret language successfully in real time, and this early variability in online processing efficiency is related both to concurrent vocabulary growth but to later language and cognitive outcomes. Our longitudinal research explores the gradual development of skill in spoken language understanding from infancy through the preschool years, and shows that individual differences in early speech processing efficiency predict later language outcomes in typically-developing children and children at risk in diverse populations. We are grateful to NIH for grants (HD42235, DC008838) that support this research.
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