University of Wisconsin–Madison

Jenny Saffran, PhD

Distinguished Professor, Psychology

Jenny Saffran, PhD

PhD, University of Rochester

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.

Selected Publications