It is about communication

Some people understand language as a way of thinking and ignore the obvious – language is a way of communicating. A recent study looks at the start of language in very young babies and shows the importance of communication. (Marno, H. et al. Can you see what I am talking about? Human speech triggers referential expectation in four-month-old infants. Sci. Rep. 5, 13594; doi: 10.1038/srep13594 (2015)) The researchers looked at infants’ ability to recognize that a word can refer to an object in the world but they also show the importance of the infants’ recognizing the act of communication.

The authors review what is known and it is an interesting list. “Human language is a special auditory stimulus for which infants show a unique sensitivity, compared to any other types of auditory stimuli. Various studies found that newborns are not only able to distinguish languages they never heard before based on their rhythmical characteristics, but they can also detect acoustic cues that signal word boundaries, discriminate words based on their patterns of lexical stress and distinguish content words from function words by detecting their different acoustic characteristics. Moreover, they can also recognize words with the same vowels after a 2 min delay. In fact, infants are more sensitive to the statistical and prosodic patterns of language than adults, which provides an explanation of why acquiring a second language is more difficult in adulthood than during infancy. In addition to this unique sensitivity to the characteristics of language, infants also show a particular preference for language, compared to other auditory stimuli. For example, infants at the age of 2-months, and even newborns prefer to listen to speech compared to non-speech stimuli, even if the non-speech stimuli retain many of the spectral and temporal properties of the speech signal. Thus, there is growing evidence that infants are born with a unique interest and sensitivity to process human language. … it might be that infants are receptive towards speech because they also understand that speech can communicate about something. More specifically, they might understand that speech can convey information about the surrounding world and that words can refer to specific entities. Indeed, without this understanding, they would have great difficulty to accept relations between objects and their labels, and thus language acquisition would become impossible.

The experiments reported in the paper are designed to show whether infants (about 4 months old) understand that words can refer to objects in the world. They do show this, but also show that this depends on the infant recognizing the act of communication. The infant attends to eye-contact and when the face speaks language (not backward language or silent mimed language), the infant then appears to recognize it is being communicated with. Without the eye-contact or without the actual language, the infant does not assume an act of communication. Then the infant can go on to recognize that reference to something is what is being communicated. “… we suggest that during the perception of a direct eye-gaze, infants can recognize the communicative intention, even before they could assess the content of these intentions. Eye-gaze thus is able to establish a communicative context, which can direct the attention of the infant. However, we also suggest that while an infant-directed gaze acts as a communicative cue signaling that the infant was addressed by someone, additional cues are required to elicit the referential expectation of the infant (i.e. to understand that the speaker is talking about something). Following this, we propose that when the infant hears speech (without being able to actually understand the content of speech) and observes a person directly gazing at her/him (like in the Infant-directed gaze condition in our experiment), s/he will understand the communicative intention of the speaker (i.e. that s/he was addressed by the speaker), but s/he will still have to wait for additional referential cues to make an inference that the speaker is actually talking about something. This additional cue arrives when the direct eye contact is broken: the very moment when the speaker averts her gaze to a new direction, the infant will infer that some new and relevant information is being presented to her via the speech signals, and, as a consequence will be ready to seek this information.

Language is about communication. Children learn language by communicating, for communicating.

Abstract: “ Infants’ sensitivity to selectively attend to human speech and to process it in a unique way has been widely reported in the past. However, in order to successfully acquire language, one should also understand that speech is a referential, and that words can stand for other entities in the world. While there has been some evidence showing that young infants can make inferences about the communicative intentions of a speaker, whether they would also appreciate the direct relationship between a specific word and its referent, is still unknown. In the present study we tested four-month-old infants to see whether they would expect to find a referent when they hear human speech. Our results showed that compared to other auditory stimuli or to silence, when infants were listening to speech they were more prepared to find some visual referents of the words, as signalled by their faster orienting towards the visual objects. Hence, our study is the first to report evidence that infants at a very young age already understand the referential relationship between auditory words and physical objects, thus show a precursor in appreciating the symbolic nature of language, even if they do not understand yet the meanings of words.


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