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What are babies thinking before they start talking?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Babies as young as five months old make distinctions about categories of events that their parents do not, revealing new information about how language develops in humans. The research by Sue Hespos, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, and Elizabeth Spelke, professor of psychology at Harvard University, was published in the July 22 issue of Nature in the article "Conceptual precursors to language."

"It's been shown in previous studies that adults actually categorize things differently based on what language they speak," Hespos said. "So, if language is influencing adults' thought, one of our questions was, what's going on with preverbal infants? Do children think before they speak?

"Language capitalizes on a pre-existing system of 'I live in a 3-D world, I know how objects behave and interact,'" she continued. "This pre-existing ability suggests that children do think before they speak."

Previous research has found that infants are sensitive to the acoustic variations that signal meanings in all the world's languages that adults can no longer hear, even those variations that their own language does not use and that the adults around them no longer hear. For instance, an adult native-English speaker will not hear all of the sounds of Korean and vice versa. Infants hear these subtleties but lose this awareness as their language skills develop over the first year of life.

"The languages of the world vary both in the sounds they require speakers to distinguish and in the meanings they require speakers to convey, and these differences influence what speakers of a language readily hear and think about," Spelke said. "Our research asked how these differences arise: Does the experience of learning to speak English or Korean make you aware of the categories your language honors?"

The example they used to explore this question was differences between how different languages describe space. For
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Contact: Melanie Catania
melanie.catania@vanderbilt.edu
615-322-2706
Vanderbilt University
21-Jul-2004


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