Connecting Infant Curiosity and Language Development at the MPI for Psycholinguistics

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I could not have had a better start into the new year! Thanks to the LuCiD travel grant and Prof. Caroline Rowland, I had the pleasure to visit the Max-Planck-Institute (MPI) of Psycholinguistics (Nijmegen, the Netherlands) for four weeks this January. Not only was I welcomed whole-heartedly, but all the members of the brilliant language acquisition group made this visit very special, offering numerous opportunities to learn about their work and methods, to expand my horizons into unfamiliar research fields, to develop new study ideas, and to have friendly chats over lunch at the “common ground” (see picture below).

I’m currently in the third year of my PhD which I am completing at Lancaster University under supervision of LuCiD-affiliated Prof. Gert Westermann and Dr Marina Bazhydai. As my research focuses on infant curiosity, this topic is crucially related to language acquisition. My work aims to better understand how babies structure their own exploration and learning based on what they are curious about in any given moment. As a field, we know shockingly little about these mechanisms in babies. One of the biggest achievements in the first years of life is acquiring and developing language skills, and early vocabulary is rich with words that accompany daily experiences and engaging encounters. We can learn a lot by examining relations between the baby’s curiosity, their exploratory tendencies, and their language development. The study-visit to the MPI allowed me to learn more about language acquisition and integrate their knowledge with my expertise in infant curiosity to develop novel study ideas for a future grant application.

The group around Caroline Rowland includes numerous Post-Docs, PhDs and research assistants investigating various aspects of language learning in diverse contexts and ages. And they were more than happy to walk me through their work. I learned about the challenges with testing difficult-to-reach populations, for instance when investigating sign language learning, but also traditional languages not commonly spoken anymore in their own population (e.g., Irish). Furthermore, a large longitudinal project employing infant EEG has recently begun – a difficult endeavour known to anyone who has ever collected such data. However, new, cutting-edge EEG caps, which only take a couple of minutes to set up and are much more user- and participant-friendly, promise to greatly improve the procedure and data-quality. Lastly, it was a personal pleasure to speak to Dr. Yayun Zhang, who has been researching infants’ object exploration, and shared-book-reading using, among others, head-mounted eye-tracking. These, and many more fascinating projects were inspiring to hear about, offering new perspectives.

Of course, I also had the opportunity to present my own work and have fruitful discussions about it. Interestingly, and especially valuable for me, there are two more developmental groups in Nijmegen, all coming together within the Baby & Child Research Center. The group around Prof. Sabine Hunnius at the Donders Institute also conducts curiosity research and invited me to present my work at their lab meeting. Thus, I gave two presentations, tailored to either group where the MPI talk provided a bit more theoretical background as well as a focus on study ideas about curiosity and language. In contrast, the Donders talk dived deeper into the theoretical framework of curiosity we are developing alongside my PhD project, as it was relevant to several studies currently being developed there. It was an enriching experience to think about the different groups and what information would be best suited to include, and the emerging feedback and discussions were invaluable in both cases. It also enabled me to meet even more brilliant developmental researchers, extending and strengthening my network in several directions. Lastly, I had the pleasure of being shown both lab-spaces which use cutting-edge methods across numerous studies. The fairy path from the parking lot to the MPI’s testing facilities was certainly a highlight!

On my first day, Caroline Rowland suggested that I additionally attend as many upcoming talks and symposia as possible. And this turned out to be an eye-opening experience as the MPI in Nijmegen engages in research from various other fields of psycholinguistics. Consequently, I was able to attend talks such as on language and rhythmic vocalisations in the animal kingdom – from meaningful vocalisations in primates, over rhythmic outbursts in penguins to the complex songs of the humpback whales; these talks offered glimpses into fascinating research I would otherwise probably not have the time to explore in-depth.

Lastly, I used the study visit to start a literature review with regards to new study ideas. Specifically, regarding early, active exploration of objects and their labels, with regards to the research question “How may language spark and guide curiosity in infants?”. While there are studies that can inform this question, no work thus far has explicitly investigated this. I have come to develop two general projects on (i) whether labels add information to a previously examined object, sparking renewed exploration of that object, as well as (ii) how toddlers structure their own exploration when they can choose between seeing a novel stimulus or receiving additional verbal information about the currently presented one? Both projects can integrate aspects of my current work using gaze-contingent eye-tracking, giving already younger infants and active role in the timing and structure of presented information. On the second to last day of my visit, we came together in a writing day (that’s us at lunch in the picture below, me and Caroline Rowland in the centre-left-back). I used that day to bring my thoughts and study ideas onto paper in an exercise to write a grant-proposal. Who knows, maybe they will eventually become my own post-doc projects!

Again, I would like to express my gratitude to Prof. Caroline Rowland for hosting me, to the whole research group at the MPI but also surrounding Prof. Sabine Hunnius for welcoming me so warmly, making it an unforgettable, enriching, and enjoyable visit to Nijmegen! Of course, this would have also not been possible without the ESRC LuCiD travel grant, which I am proud of and thankful for receiving.


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