Research: Noise, visual cues affect infants' language development

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Even moderate background noise can affect how infants learn language at an early and crucial time of their development, according to new research from Purdue University.

"This research reaffirms how important it is for a child to see the face of a person while hearing him or her speak," says George Hollich, an assistant professor of psychological sciences. "This is the first study to show how children are easily distracted when the background noise is at the same loudness as the person talking to the child. We found that even soft noise can be a problem."

Hollich, who is director of Purdue's Infant Language Laboratory, teamed with Rochelle S. Newman, assistant professor of speech-language pathology at the University of Maryland, and the late Peter W. Jusczyk, a former professor at Johns Hopkins University. Their paper is published in the June issue of the journal Child Development.

Background noise in the average household - such as other children playing or watching television - can pose the same problem for children that an older adult with hearing loss encounters at a cocktail party.

"Older adults who are hard of hearing use their other senses, such as vision, to better understand speech," Hollich says. "We thought this might be what infants do when they are in a noisy environment. Struggling to hear can be annoying for adults, so just imagine how distracting it is for infants who are trying to learn a language.

"Unlike the printed word, speech doesn't use commas, spaces or periods to separate words and concepts. If there is more than one source of speech, it's especially hard for the infant to know when one word ends and another begins. That is why infants need to match what they hear with the movements of the speaker's face."

Hollich's four studies, conducted in 2002 at John Hopkins University where he previously worked, analyzed how environmental noises affected 7-month-old infants during t

Contact: Amy Patterson Neubert
Purdue University

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