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Infants Can Use Language to Learn About People’s Intentions, Researchers Find

January 3, 2013

Infants are able to detect how speech communicates unobservable intentions, researchers at NYU and McGill University have found in a study that sheds new light on how early in life we can rely on language to acquire knowledge about matters that go beyond first-hand experiences.

Their findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Much of what we know about the world does not come from our own experiences, so we have to obtain this information indirectly—from books, the news media, and conversation,” explains Athena Vouloumanos, assistant professor at NYU and one of the study’s co-authors. “Our results show infants can acquire knowledge in much the same way.”

The study’s other co-authors were Kristine Onishi, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Canada’s McGill University, and Amanda Pogue, former research assistant at NYU who is now a graduate student at the University of Waterloo.

Previous scholarship has established that infants seem to understand that speech can be used to categorize and communicate about observable entities such as objects and people. But no study has directly examined whether infants recognize that speech can communicate about unobservable aspects.

In the PNAS study, the researchers sought to determine if one-year-old infants could recognize that speech can communicate about one unobservable phenomenon that is crucial for understanding social interactions: a person’s intentions.

To explore this question, the researchers had adult “communicators” and “recipients” act out short scenarios for the infants. Some scenes ended predictably (that is, with an ending that is congruent with our understanding of the world) while others ended unpredictably (that is, incongruently).

If infants understood that speech—but not non-speech—could transfer information about an intention, when the communicator used speech and the recipient responded, infants should treat this as a congruent outcome. Results confirmed this prediction. The infants looked longer when the recipient performed a different action, suggesting they treated these as incongruent, or surprising, outcomes.

“What’s significant about this is it tells us that infants have access to another channel of communication that we previously didn’t know they had,” adds Vouloumanos. “Understanding that speech can communicate about things that are unobservable gives infants a way to learn about the world beyond what they’ve experienced. Infants can use this tool to gain insight into other people, helping them develop into capable social beings.”

The study was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada


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Infants Can Use Language to Learn About People’s Intentions, Researchers Find

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