Jenny Saffran

Jenny Saffran, PhD

PhD, University of Rochester
Distinguished Professor, Psychology

Contact Information:

Waisman Center
1500 Highland Avenue
Madison, WI 53705
Lab Website: Infant Learning Lab
Department of Psychology

Research Statement

How do infants learn about their worlds? We study how infants learn about the auditory world, particularly the beginnings of language acquisition and music perception.

One line of research presently being pursued in the Saffran lab concerns the problem of word segmentation. As adult listeners, we perceive word boundaries when listening to a familiar language. However, these boundaries disappear when we hear a foreign language. This is because speakers do not consistently pause between words.

We have proposed that learners, including infants, may detect word boundaries in part by tracking the statistical properties of the sound combinations that they hear. In these experiments, we expose infant learners to sound sequences generated from made-up languages, sounding something like this: abutikulagikabuti... In related work, we are exploring other aspects of the sound structure of language which may assist infants in discovering word s.

Related research concerns infant music perception - to what extent do infants track sequences of notes in the same ways in which they track sequences of speech sounds? We are interested in teasing apart the roles of absolute (perfect) and relative (intervals) pitch in infant music learning. We propose that infants can use absolute pitch (the actual frequency relating to a particular note, like middle C) in order to learn the tone sequences, whereas relative pitch (the relationship between the notes, as in a perfect 5th) might be more difficult for infants to use. More generally, we are interested in understanding the degree to which the same sorts of learning processes underly music and language learning.

As we extend our research to include other dimensions of language learning, including bilingual language acquisition, we hope to begin to uncover the learning mechanisms which support typical language acquisition. We can then apply this knowledge to understanding possible roots of developmental language disorders. Such research will eventually be targeted towards developing and testing interventions for children with difficulties acquiring language.

Representative Publications

Venker CE, Haebig E, Edwards J, Saffran JR, Ellis Weismer S. (2016) Brief Report: Early Lexical Comprehension in Young Children with ASD: Comparing Eye-Gaze Methodology and Parent Report. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 46(6):2260-6. doi: 10.1007/s10803-016-2747-z.

Hay JF, Graf Estes K, Wang T, Saffran JR. (2015) From flexibility to constraint: the contrastive use of lexical tone in early word learning. Child Development. 86(1):10-22. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12269.

Wojcik EH, Saffran JR. (2015) Toddlers encode similarities among novel words from meaningful sentences. Cognition. 138:10-20. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.01.015.

Willits JA, Seidenberg MS, Saffran JR. (2014) Distributional structure in language: contributions to noun-verb difficulty differences in infant word recognition. Cognition. 132(3):429-36. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.05.004.

Wang T, Saffran JR. (2014) Statistical learning of a tonal language: the influence of bilingualism and previous linguistic experience. Frontiers in Psychology. 3;5:953. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00953.

Saffran J. (2014) Sounds and meanings working together: Word learning as a collaborative effort. Language Learning. 1;64(Suppl 2):106-120.

Venker CE, Eernisse ER, Saffran JR, Weismer SE. (2013) Individual Differences in the Real-Time Comprehension of Children with ASD. Autism Research. 6(5):417-32. doi: 10.1002/aur.1304.

Romberg AR, Saffran JR. (2013) All Together Now: Concurrent Learning of Multiple Structures in an Artificial Language. Cognitive Science. In Press.

Willits JA, Wojcik EH, Seidenberg MS, Saffran JR. (2013) Toddlers Activate Lexical Semantic Knowledge in the Absence of Visual Referents: Evidence from Auditory Priming. Infancy. 18(6). doi: 10.1111/infa.12026.

Wojcik EH, Saffran JR. (2013) The ontogeny of lexical networks: toddlers encode the relationships among referents when learning novel words. Psychological Science. 24(10):1898-905. doi: 10.1177/0956797613478198.

Hay JF, Saffran JR. (2012) Rhythmic grouping biases constrain infant statistical learning. Infancy. 17(6):610-641.

Romberg AR, Saffran JR. (2012) Expectancy learning from probabilistic input by infants. Frontiers in Psychology. 3:610.

Lew-Williams C, Saffran JR. (2012) All words are not created equal: expectations about word length guide infant statistical learning. Cognition. Feb;122(2):241-6.

Lany J, Saffran JR. (2011) Interactions between statistical and semantic information in infant language development. Developmental Science. Sep;14(5):1207-19.

Lew-Williams C, Pelucchi B, Saffran JR. (2011) Isolated words enhance statistical language learning in infancy. Developmental Science. Nov;14(6):1323-9.

Hay JF, Pelucchi B, Graf Estes K, Saffran JR. (2011) Linking sounds to meanings: infant statistical learning in a natural language. Cognitive Psychology. Sep;63(2):93-106.

Romberg AR, Saffran JR. (2010) Statistical learning and language acquisition. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. Nov;1(6):906-914.