Research Projects


Development of Word Learning

We are interested in how children learn words, and how this learning develops over time. In this experiment we are interested in both the words that children already know and how they learn new words. To find out about the words children know, we ask parents to fill out a vocabulary checklist that involves checking off any words their child knows or says. To find out about how children learn new words, we teach them about items they’ve never seen before and call it a new name they’ve never heard before. Then, we show children other similar items and ask which ones would have the same name. In this way we can see how children learn new words and how they use those words with other related items. This information provides new insights into how individual children learn language over time.

Categorization Development

How do children organize their knowledge about the world? To explore this question, we look at the types of information children use to form groups of objects or categories (e.g. dogs versus cats). In particular, we are interested in how language makes it easier to learn to categorize items correctly. Some research indicates that children first use the way that an item looks to group it with other objects. Later they use less obvious, more abstract properties. In our experiments we look at how children of different ages use these different types of information by presenting items that they’ve never seen before either in person or on a computer screen. We vary the way that the items look, such as different colors and textures, and facts about the items, to see how children learn about other new items.

How Words Get Special

We are also interested in the role of language in categorization. Research shows that labeling an item can lead children to prefer to group objects but some properties more than others. For example, labeling a solid object leads children to group mostly by the shape of that object, and labeling a non-solid substance leads children to group by the material it is made of. However, children only do this when the objects are given a name. When they aren’t named, they don’t group by either shape or material more. In our experiments we investigate how hearing words influences learning about new items and categories.

Although we mainly focus on children’s learning, we are also interested in how adults learn new categories. Similarly to our projects with children, we investigate how adults use different types of information and properties of items when learning to group them into categories. We also study the influence of language in adult categorization, for example whether giving a new item a name leads to learning those items differently.

The Word Learning Context

How do children learn new words? Research shows that what children hear has a lot to do with how they use words. We are interested in finding out how different environments influence the way that children learn a word that they have never heard before. In these experiments we often ask parents to simply play with their children as if they were at home. These play sessions are videotaped and reviewed later by lab members to, for example, see how parents responded to their child when the child named an object.

Other recent projects have investigated whether monolingual and bilingual children expect people to point or look at objects more when they are giving them a new name. We also have an on-going study working with children that are hard-of-hearing. We expect that learning words in a particular environment is related to how easy it is to learn a new word for an item that has never been seen before – a task that children face every day.