Infants give strong clues to language learning

Jenny Saffran, PhD

Imagine that you’ve been dropped into an unfamiliar country. People are speaking all around you. But you don’t recognize the sounds or objects surrounding you. You don’t even hear words; all the sounds are mushed together. It is very confusing.

This is the infant’s world. And yet, to babies, this situation doesn’t appear to be confusing in the least. How do they make sense of it all?

As any parent can tell you, most infants begin to understand language long before they can produce words themselves. In the Infant Learning Lab, my students and I aim to discover how infants learn to understand.

Each year, more than 1,000 Dane County infants visit our lab at the Waisman Center. They don’t have to say a word! We are able to measure what they know by tracking their eye gaze while they view pictures on a screen, or by timing how long they listen to familiar sounds.

Using these simple methods, we have learned a great deal about how infants come to understand their native language (or languages). Infants are remarkably good at detecting patterns of sounds, allowing them to figure out where words begin and end. They are also highly skilled at mapping these sounds onto meanings, which is the basis of learning words, and at discovering patterns of words that form sentences.

Not all infants are equally skilled at language learning. For infants with developmental disabilities, the linguistic world may be particularly confusing. By working with infants of diverse abilities, we hope to better understand both how language learning typically unfolds, and how to help infants for whom learning is especially challenging.