Language and Learning: How Infants Access New Words Across Cultures

First Posted: Sep 27, 2013 03:31 PM EDT

A recent study looks at how infants acquire new words across cultures.

According to lead study authors Sandra WaxMan and Louis W. Menk of Northwestern University, they compared how infants acquire Korean nouns and verbs.

Previous studies have long suggested that in "noun friendly" languages such as English, infants' attention is typically focused on objects that are commonly marked by nouns. "Verb friendly" languages including Korean, Japanese and Hindi include a more privileged status that includes infants' attention which is focused more directly on the actions and relations that would typically be marked by verbs.

"Almost all of the research on infants acquiring these "verb-friendly" languages has looked at the nouns and verbs that they produce in their daily lives," said Sudha Arunachalam, lead author of the study and assistant professor of speech and hearing sciences at Boston University, via a press release. "By using an experimental method instead, our approach lets us watch infants acquire new words, so we can get real insight into the mental processes that are at work during learning."

Researchers believe that their new work shows a strong universal connection in language acquisition. However, they also note that real cross-linguistic differences may be observed.

"Like infants acquiring other languages, Korean infants very successfully learn nouns to name objects such as ball, bottle and boy," Waxman said, via the release. "However, when it comes to learning verbs -- names for activities and relations -- like running, hugging, twirling, we see differences across languages."

Previous findings in the English language have shown that 24-month-old infants were better able to learn novel verbs linked with novel actions when the noun phrases specifically mentioned the words.

In contrast, findings also show that in Korean (a language in which noun phrases are typically dropped in conversation, according to background information from the study) 24-year-olds were better able to understand novel verbs with novel actions that surrounded noun phrases when the words were dropped.

"We know that even before infants begin to say many verbs, they begin to understand them," Waxman said, via the release. "What this new research tells us is that the information that infants need to 'get' that understanding varies, depending upon the native language they are learning. This piece of the language acquisition process is not universal; instead, it is 'language-specific.'

More information regarding the study can be found via Language Acquisition: A Journal of Developmental Linguistics.

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