Babies and toddlers have an amazing ability to learn language, in part because they spend a lot of time listening, looking, and interacting with caregivers. Our lab aims to understand language learning by studying how learning mechanisms and the environment interact to shape language outcomes.
Each young child's ability to process language in real time is rooted in and shaped by their experience. Our studies aim to look at this through simulations of a child's language experience. In addition to this, we study children learning two languages, children with communication delays or disorders, children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and adults learning a second language. We combine methods from Psychology, Linguistics, and Communication Sciences & Disorders. During our studies, we measure simple behaviors like eye and head movements, attention, and communication with others. We ultimately hope for our work to provide a link between research and clinical practice.
How do we learn to perceive the world around us?
We often think of learning as something we do in classrooms. However, our brains are constantly learning to anticipate and interpret sensory information that we get from the world. Our research shows that even very young infants have this ability, and they use it to develop perceptual skills, which form the foundation for perceptual-cognitive abilities. For example, language comprehension relies on speech perception, and social cognition relies on face perception.
Our research investigates how infants’ vision, hearing, and learning systems work together during new experiences to alter their perception of the world. We use a variety of methods, including behavioral play-based tasks, eye-tracking measures (in which we watch where a child looks during a study), and functional neuroimaging measures to uncover these relationships. These methods allow us to study infants when they are just a few months old.
One technique that we use in our experiments is called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). FNIRS allows us to peek into the infant brain as it develops. FNIRS uses very low levels of near-infrared light (less than an infant would receive going from a car to a building on a cloudy day) to record changes in brain activity in the infant brain. This technique is extremely safe for infants, and it is FDA-approved. Infants happily wear the NIRS cap while they explore the world around them, allowing us to get a glimpse into how a baby’s brain changes when she or he experiences new things.