Baby talk: UW’s Waisman lab explores the how and why behind an infant’s first words

Kelly McClurg, Special to The Capital Times

A child’s first word is a special moment, their eyes widening in curiosity, one chubby finger pointing to an object in sudden recognition as “juice” or “train.” Forever written in baby books and memories, that first word is a triumph, their induction into the speaking world.

But it is what precedes that moment, the processes leading to language comprehension, that most interests the Waisman Center Infant Learning Lab.

Jenny Saffran with young participant
Jenny Saffran with young participant at her Infant Learning Lab at the Waisman Center

“Our research provides us with a way to actually try to understand and study something that appears almost magical,” said Professor Jenny Saffran, who runs the Infant Learning Lab. “Because it seems magical when kids learn language.”

The UW-Madison Waisman Center focuses on a deeper understanding of human development through research, community facilities and training. Saffran’s Infant Learning Lab researches how people acquire the means to understand language by exploring how infants in the process of developing those tools respond to auditory and visual signals.

Their current research includes determining how infants differentiate between words within spoken sentences, whether they can identify grammatical or sound patterns, and how important familiarity of sounds is to language development — something lab worker and graduate student Katie Graph Estes is studying.

“There is similarity in how children process language and how adults process language, so understanding the starting point helps us understand how language as a whole works,” Graph Estes said.

For this type of study parents and their child sit in a sound booth while a television screen repetitively shows pictures and related sounds or words to the infant before asking them to “find” certain objects among those shown. The voice saying the words changes, or nonsense objects and words are incorporated — a method that is an offshoot of an artificial language originally developed by Saffran for such studies that lets researchers look at the effects of familiar versus novel sounds and words.

Using these techniques lab workers can manipulate speech patterns, making it easier to draw accurate conclusions from infants’ responses, which they observe on a computer screen. Researchers note head turns, pointing and other non-spoken cues to show how and when infants are actively engaged.

Renee Reger-Kelsey’s 20-month-old son Jamison Kelsey recently took part in a study for the first time and she said it is likely they will return for another.

“It didn’t take a lot of time, it was easy,” Reger-Kelsey said. “And it is kind of neat to be a part of something that could help clinicians and practitioners understand child development better in the future.”

Janel Hanmer, whose second baby is on the way, has brought her 18-month-old son Turing Zelsnack three or four times and plans to bring his new brother once he is born.

“It is good to get out of the house,” laughed Hanmer. “And I think learning about the way kids learn language is important.”

Saffran said the lab does eight to 10 research sessions per week. Last year alone they conducted studies with about 1,200 infants.

Reaching any conclusions from research takes about a year, and even then, said Saffran, “you never truly reach a conclusion, you just reach the next question.”

Research participants are contacted through a lab database and receive a free children’s T-shirt or book for participating. Saffran said they have many repeat visitors, including her two children, who participated as infants.

“We are really appreciative of participants,” Saffran said. “Our studies are fun, they do not last more than five minutes … it is a chance to learn more about what is unfolding in your child’s mind before they are able to tell you.”