How Physical Environment Shapes Language Learning in Toddlers

By Emily Leclerc | Waisman Science Writer

Jenny Saffran, PhD
Jenny Saffran, PhD

The environment in which toddlers learn language may have a greater impact on word learning than previously understood. New research from the Waisman Center shows how important a child’s physical environment may be to their language development. A recently published paper, ‘Early word learning is influenced by physical environments,’ by Jenny Saffran, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Waisman investigator and Elise Breitfeld, graduate student, highlights the impact of a child’s physical environment on their ability to learn words.

Toddlers and children are constantly taking in information. Listening to their parents talk. The colors of the room around them. The texture of the toy they are holding. The smells in the room. Kids use that information to learn about the world around them as they age. When it comes to language learning, kids utilize that physical information to help them learn words and the meaning of words. This paper in particular showcases that shape and contrast of objects play an important role in a child’s ability to learn the words associated with them.

“One of the really interesting things about word learning is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Saffran says. “You can imagine all sorts of situations where infants and toddlers hear a word and see an object and sometimes they make the connection. And sometimes they don’t. So, we’re really interested in what some of the factors might be that promote successful mapping of a meaning or object to a word.”

Breitfeld and Saffran designed the study to use a shape sorter toy to help determine if contrasting shapes and slots in the toy helped toddlers between one and two-years-old learn the word associated with the object. “We know that attending to object shape is really helpful for kids to learn words,” Breitfeld says. “We wanted to ascertain if there are certain physical spaces that either draw children’s attention to shape features of objects or other spaces that cloud those shape features that might have a really important impact on whether or not a kid actually learns a word.”

Elise Breitfeld
Elise Breitfeld

The toddlers participating in the study were shown two objects and told the names of the objects. Then the objects were placed into the matching shape in the shape sorter toy. The toddlers were then shown two objects that were placed into a different toy with a general circular large opening that wasn’t specific to the object’s shape. Breitfeld and Saffran found that the toddlers were much more likely to learn the word for the object when the shapes were emphasized by the matching openings of the sorter toy. The children were using the environmental cues from the shape sorter toy to learn the words associated with the objects.

“When babies and toddlers are learning words, it seems like it really matters what’s going on around those objects when they’re learning. Environments may emphasize certain features of objects, like shape,” Breitfeld says. “And other environments may cover up those differences like with the sorter toy with the one large opening.”

This study opens several doors to continue researching how environment affects word learning and language development in children. Breitfeld hopes that the next steps for this work involves determining if this effect is specific to shape or if there are other attributes that are highlighted by different environments that aid in word learning. “Is this something special about shape or is it just something more general with contrast?” she asks. This study also lays important foundations for investigating how the environment in which a child learns a word may impact how the child is able to extend the word past the initial learning moment.

An example of the sorter toy
An example of the sorter toy used in the study and the contrasting shapes vs the single circular opening

“For example, in a case where the environment highlighted shape, they might apply that word to a new object that they see that has the same shape. But in a scenario where the color of that object mattered for how it was used, then they’re likely to extend that word to other objects that share the same color rather than the same shape,” Breitfeld says. “Typically, we use objects for particular purposes. They’re designed for particular purposes and that purpose helps define what we call it. This could be a really powerful mechanism for not only how babies and toddlers learn the word in the first place, but also how they start to learn more about what that word means, rather than just connecting it to a singular object.”

This study provides a basis that could potentially lead to interventions for those with atypical language development. Often individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) can struggle with learning language. Understanding how typically developing individuals use the environment and context to learn words could provide insight into how that process is impacted for individuals with IDDs.

“The hope is that by having a better understanding of the types of information that are available to learners and what learners capitalize on, we can get a better handle on individual differences in the degree to which children are making use of those types of information,” Saffran says. “Then by having a better sense of what matters, we can start thinking about bigger questions. Such as if this is a child who is struggling with learning the words for objects in their environment, maybe using the physical environment to highlight key aspects of those objects will help them to learn the words that otherwise might be challenging for them.”

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