How social cognition and communication link to language development during and infancy

A baby takes part in an EEG experimentWe investigated how early social cognition in infants, such as communication with adults and sensitivity to particular communicative signals, can drive specific aspects of language acquisition.

We used a variety of methods including electroencephalogram (EEG). EEG allowed us to examine infant brain responses to information in the environment. A measure derived from EEG, known as the event-related potential (ERP), allows for the direct investigation of the neural systems involved in information processing even in the absence of overt behaviour.  It therefore provides invaluable information about the way in which infants process information from their environment.

In a series of EEG studies, we confirmed that infants as young as 4 months, process Infant-Directed speech (IDS) - the typical intonation adults use when talking to infants - with more neural resources compared to Adult-Directed speech. Moreover, we found that after hearing IDS infants prepare themselves to look for a possible source of the speech, e.g. to a human face. This indicates that young infants are not interested in certain signals per se, but rather they are looking for, and are prepared to deal with, communicative partners such as the adults around them.

In another series of studies, we investigated whether infants treat object labels (e.g. the word “Cat”) and object associated sounds (e.g. the sound “Meow”) in the same way. We exploited eye tracker technology to answer this question. While we were able to show that adults react faster to the picture of an object when that is preceded by the corresponding label compared to the corresponding sound; we found that infants at 9 and at 12 months of age do not show any difference if the pictures is preceded by a label or by a sound. At 18 months, they attend more to a picture preceded by a sound compared to a word. This might indicate that infants need a long time to appreciate that words, as opposed to sounds, represent concepts, and that for them it is initially easier to associate environmental sounds to the corresponding object.

These studies provided relevant insight about the relations between communication, language acquisition and conceptual development in infants. They are currently under consideration in peer reviewed journals.

Project Team: Vincent Reid (Lead), Eugenio PariseSzilvia Linnert, Louah Sirri and Christian Kliesch

Duration: 4 years

(Work Package 3)