Category Archives: Language development

More Tidbits on Memory…and a Clip You Can Watch WITH Your Kids

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 So many fantastic thoughts and comments lately. What a great readership! Some really interesting questions asked/points raised about memory. They jogged my own noggin' (noticeably on the decline in recent years) of a few related studies. Here are the nutshell versions:

1. One of the ways researchers get memory in people of all ages is to compare how easy it is to learn something for the first time, compared to when we have to learn it again. For example, in lots of traditional memory studies with adults, the researchers gave their participants lists of words or word pairs (sock-orange) and looked at how long it took to learn them. Then after some substantial delay, when the participants no longer consciously remembered the list, they brought them back and looked at how long it took them to learn the same list to perfect recall again. The difference in the time it took at time 1 and time 2 is termed "savings" which basically shows that you unconsciously retained or REMEMBERED some of the list. For more on this idea and the guy behind it try here

Of course, we're not going to give a baby a list of words to learn, but just think of the task in terms of something that babies CAN do. For example, in one study infants of just a few months were put in a crib and their leg was connected to a string (such as by a a loop around their ankle). The point was to see how long it took the baby to figure out that if they kicked that leg vigorously, something fun would happen (e.g. a clown doll would appear, or they'd hear a funny sound, the lights would flash etc.). Then after a delay, they brought the babies back and put them in the same crib, same set-up etc. If they got the "leg kick = funny event" link more quickly, the researchers would conclude that the babies REMEMBERED what they needed to do. Oh there's always a way to get inside that amazing baby head…

2.  The stuff you have to remember to do in future – take your medicine at 2pm, TAKE A HOLIDAY GIFT IN FOR YOUR CHILD'S TEACHER BEFORE THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL (I'm just sayin'…) – is called prospective memory (as opposed to retrospective memory, for things in the past). It's one of the first things to go when you get older. That's your head's up. 

3.  Yes, there is such a thing as photographic memory – when you can picture in your mind the actual material you want to remember, in the place where you first learned it. That's as in, you are writing an exam and you can picture in your head the page in the text book where you read it AND YOU CAN SCAN THAT PAGE TO FIND WHAT YOU ARE AFTER. It's not exactly common. Usually fades by later childhood (11 or so). Any takers?  Did any of you do this?  I definitely relied on this in school, even later on, but it got way, way harder as the years went by. I'm not sure how good a measure of photographic memory this is…but if you have a few minutes on your hands (ha ha ha…) or insomnia, Try this

4.  Another favourite line of research (honestly, can I really call it a fave when there are so many?) specifically targets childhood amnesia. Here's a link to the primary researcher's homepage if you want to have a browse. I cannot help but highlight one of her coolest recent findings. Ya know how excited I get about these things…

The researchers visited young children (about 2-3 years of age) in their homes and taught them a novel event. A machine would actually "shrink" a toy you put inside it. Read: Child puts a big toy in the front opening of the machine, then closes the door. Some flashing lights and machine like sounds go off, then they open door and find a miniature version of the toy inside. Yes, of course, it's been replaced with the mini one by way of the back door and another researcher or something, but boy do they go for it!  It's amazing!!!. This all happens at an age when language is fairly limited but then develops amazingly quickly. They know because they actually measure the children's language skills. 

Then after 6 months or 1 year, they go back to visit the same children and basically probe to see if they remember what happened on that first visit, now "ages" ago as far as they are concerned. The probing includes asking them to talk about it (verbal measure), asking them to pick out pictures of e.g. some of the toys they shrunk (visual recognition) and asking them if they remember how to work the machine (behavioural re-enactment). And oh yes, they measure their language skills again. Get this: Even though children remember what happened (as shown by their performance on the visual recognition and behavioural measures – both non-verbal), their memories are limited to the vocabulary they had AT THE TIME the shrinking machine thing took place. That is, even though they now had WAY better vocabularies, they described the event only in terms of the language they had AT THE TIME THEY EXPERIENCED IT!  This suggests of course that our so-called infantile amnesia is linked to our limited capacity to code or store our experiences in words when our vocabularies are so very limited. Note that as the children had good non-verbal memory of the event, they clearly registered it. It's just that they were limited in their ability to access those memories verbally. So perhaps this helps to explain why we later can no longer access those early memories and integrate them into our autobiographical memories when we are older and rely more on storing and accessing memories verbally. Hmmm…

6. Finally, to help keep your internet-using guilt at bay and to end the week on a lighter note, here's a fun clip on memory that you can actually watch WITH your kids! 

Now just remember to watch it. Good weekend.


Friday Link Love: Some studies on early language acquisition

Some further weekend reading, for those of you interested in language development in particular:

At some point this week, in the comments section, someone voiced their worry that they may have already missed the "sensitive window" for exposing their child to a second language. I think it was Chaosgirl and she wondered, like so many of us have, if earlier is better in terms of the ease with which children might be able to acquire a second language. So, I had to laugh when I recently read this. Apparently, kids are starting to get the sense of their first language IN UTERO. I can just see it now: There will be big ol' fuzzy headphones made for pregnant women to put on their bellies and pipe in podcasts of people speaking several of their favourite languages.

And then there's this article: I remember being an undergrad and having coffee at my hip little cafe DECADES ago and secretly cringing at all that syrupy high-pitched chatter that I used to hear new moms use with their babies. "I'LL never be that RIDICULOUS with my babies" I thought. Thankfully, I got over myself because all that "motherese" (as developmentalists like to call it) actually HELPS children acquire language better than when we use our normal "adult" voices.

Finally, picking up on the earlier discussion about bilingualism, here's a fascinating article showing how bilingual infants learn words differently than monolingual children. They seem toS-KLINGON-large use different strategies, given that their "cognitive load" is heavier. These differences mean that bilingual children often can't detect slight differences if words are very similar-sounding, so they often look like they're lagging behind their monlingual peers. But this strategy seems adaptive to learning, and perfecting, two different languages in the long run.

And then, there's THIS doozy of a early language experience (thanks Julie!)!  A man spent the first three years of his son's life speaking only in KLINGON to him… Being the Star Trek fan that I am (SHUT UP), I wasn't as appalled as some may be.

– Isabela

Can You Hear That? Listening Study Yields Amazing Insights About Early Human Language

In response to yesterday's blog on clever techniques researchers use to get at the goings on of the infant brain, someone asked if the "habituation technique" I described with looking is also used with listening. If you missed that post, click here for a quick primer. The answer of course is YES!

I was going to post an example of a listening habituation study but if you read yesterday's post, you can probably figure out how that would go. Here, instead, is an example of a listening study using a different listening technique called "conditioned head turning". I wanted to include it because it is one of the more famous studies with mind-blowing findings (if you didn't already hear about it in the media), that have come from infant listening work. I hope you agree that it's incredibly cool!

Check it out:

The Scoop: All babies are born with the capacity to acquire language and which one (or ones) they end up using depends on which one (or ones) they are exposed to. So it's not so surprising that young babies can hear and tell the difference between speech sounds that us old folks can no longer hear e.g. Japanese infants can hear and discriminate between the "r" and "l" sounds in the English language more easily than Japanese adults. Interestingly, the paring down of your sound repertoire to the sounds in your language (s) of exposure happens around 10 months of age, just around the onset of language production. It's as though the brain is honing in on what it will need to find our way in the social world.

In fact, the evidence suggests that this "honing in" may apply to social stimuli in general i.e. not just language. Another study showed that young infants can discriminate between different faces of the same race, a phenomenon that holds for different races; Chinese, Caucasian, African etc. But by 9 months of age, they seem to lose that fine tuned ability and are best at discriminating faces of their own race!  Read: social input goes a long way to influencing our social perception. Here's a link to one of the relevant papers in case you're really curious.

Notice that the speech and face processing narrowing is happening around the same time? Why? Probably because it's more efficient to be finely tuned to the social environment you have to deal with, the one you need to find your way in, to have your needs met in etc.

I don't know about you, but after reading this stuff I usually have two reactions: 1). Wow! Fascinating! and 2). Holy crap it's so much responsibility raising a child. What is he being exposed to?  Do we educate bilingually?  Is he getting multiracial/multicultural input?  Is that necessarily good or bad or something I should worry about at all?  Ughhh!  Then I usually realize that time is marching on and stuff is happening anyway, like it or not. There's only so much we can control…

- Tracy

Babies’ brains do NOT need Baby Einstein… but moms might

Many of you must have heard by now about the big kerfuffle regarding Disney's offer to compensate parents' for the price of their Baby Einstein DVDs. Turns out that the claims made on these products were WRONG. The claims I'm primarily talking about, of course, is that these videos are "educational" or "help cognitive development" or "Help your baby learn language." Oops, that last one is really, really wrong. Not just wrong, but the precise opposite seems to be the case. In a study that came out originally a couple of years ago, researchers from the University of Washington found that for every extra hour of DVDs or videos that babies watched (specifically, 8 – 16 month olds), they learned 6-8 words LESS than kids who were not watching. I find the age-span particularly interesting, since that period is JUST BEFORE the stage that the vast majority of children get a HUGE spurt in language development at around 18-21 months. A recent study out of Thailand also found that early (before 12 months of age) intense t.v. exposure (defined as 2 hours or more per day) was associated with a six-fold increase in the probability of language delays.Baby tv gif

I have two main responses to the whole Baby Einstein thing. The first goes something like: The bastards SHOULD pay. There has NEVER been any research to back up the "educational" claims made by Baby Einstein inc. and all the videos associated with the brand. And there have been plenty of studies that have, for years, debunked myths like playing (Baby) Mozart to your child (in or out of the womb) has anything to do with the development of intellect,musicality, etc. (links to come, I can't find them now). I can kind of deal with every leggo box having a blurb on its packaging about "promoting fine-motor skills" and every wooden castle "enhancing children's imagination skills." These are sort of no-brainers (pun intended) without as much baggage associated with the claims. But what gets me all fired up is the massive industry that's been built up to prey on parents' fears, particularly the fear of not providing enough for their children's intellectual growth. The sales of videos geared at children under the age of two are estimated at over a BILLION dollars. Check out the Kaiser Family Foundation report for many more details. I remember the guy who painted our house 2 years ago urging me to start playing these Baby Einstein videos for my boys otherwise they'll fall behind and not be ready for school — he was seriously and sweetly concerned for my boys and their clueless mother. Then I went and looked at one of the videos and did a bit of my own research and proceeded to be HORRIFIED by the subtle and not-so-subtle marketing ploys made by these DVD companies (it's not JUST Baby Einstein, they're just the most popular). But my painter was not alone in his concerns: In that same Kaiser report (which is way out of date by now, given it was published in 2003),  27 percent of young children were found to own Baby Einstein videos and 49 percent of parents thought that educational videos were “very important” in the intellectual development of children.

Let me put it as clearly as possible: Scientific evidence strongly suggests that children learn language  better from native speakers in person or even from audiotapes (or whatever the cool kids are calling audiofiles and such lately) compared to learning from screens (TV or computers). For a review of these findings (and a very clear description of the state of the science in this area), just google this fellow's name: Dimitri A Christakis and the year 2009. There's a PDF document of his review article that I can't link to, but it's available for free for anyone who wants it.

So, yeah, in sum, I think Disney and that self-promoting, money-grubbing founder of Baby Einstein should pay back all the parents they lied to. It may be a tad harsh, but I think setting a precedent that stipulates that toy companies and media developers need to back up their claims with REAL SCIENCE (or just SHUT UP about any scientific claims) is a good precedent to set.

<end rant>

But I said I had two main responses and here's my (blessedly more brief) second point: Baby Einstein videos are well-designed attention-catchers (albeit VERY creepy, IMO) that can save a parent's sanity. I don't think they're evil, I just don't think they teach language or anything else particularly valuable for that matter. But they DO entertain babies. And there are so FEW things that entertain babies for more than .003 seconds. If your baby loves these DVDs (and not all babies do, btw), I'd say use them in moderation without fear of screwing up your child. If I had had one of these DVDs when I had my infant twins, it may have allowed me to, oh… I don't know, maybe SHOWER more than once per week. So many of us know that feeling of having a needy infant and desperately needing to pee, cook dinner, brush our teeth, put a load of laundry in, answer the phone, engage our older son/daughter in some playful game without the baby interfering, or just stare out the window for 5 min of uninterrupted peace. Seriously… if a DVD can give us that little bit of time we need to take care of ourselves or the gazillion things we need to do around the house, I am ALL for it. OF COURSE it's important to limit the viewing time (most babies won't sit still for more than 15 min or so anyway) and OF COURSE we should continue to do lots of cooing and gooing and talking and cuddling and singing with our babies throughout the day. It's not a good idea to use these DVDs in place of quality time spent face-to-face with parents and other loved ones… but once in a while, for mom's sake, I wouldn't fret too much over it. Since Disney's taking it on the chin anyway over all this "false advertising," maybe I should suggest to them a change in the name from Baby Einstein to Baby Hypnotics or Mama Valium (ok, shutting up now, we already know how bad at funny I am).

So… what do you think about Baby Einstein? Have you played them for your baby? Were you suprised by the "quasi-recall"?

– Isabela