Faculty Spotlight

Sandra Waxman

Language, cognition, and our understanding of the world

Sandra Waxman

What does a 3-month-old’s response to a lemur call and a 5-year-old’s appreciation of the natural world have to do with each other? According to cognitive psychologist Sandra Waxman, everything.

“Over the years I have asked what cognitive and linguistic capacities are available to infants and young children from the very start, and how these are fine-tuned by the shaping force of their experience,” said Waxman, who is Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology and IPR’s newest fellow.

These questions form the foundation for two distinct research streams. One focuses on how infants establish links between language and cognition. Another identifies how young children from diverse cultures reason about the natural world.

Waxman’s overarching goal for her research is to elucidate the intricate interactions between “nature and nurture”—the twin engines of development. Thus, Waxman’s research seeks to unravel how language and cognition come together in the minds of very young children from different cultures and linguistic backgrounds to shape their understanding of the world.

“The seeds of human development begin to unfold in early life, and the developmental trajectories of infants and toddlers are shaped crucially by experience, including their experience with their native language,” Waxman said. “I hope that this research can help address the serious gap between basic scientific research findings and their implementation in policy and programming for young children and their families.”

Linking Language and Cognition in Infants

For more than 20 years, Waxman has directed Northwestern’s Project on Child Development, a developmental laboratory staffed by undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students. Projects revolve around how infants acquire language and form categories and concepts, and how these two come together in the mind of the child. Their major findings indicate that language fuels the acquisition of concepts throughout development and that, regardless of an infant’s linguistic background, a relationship between words and concepts emerges early enough to guide their first efforts in mapping words to their meanings,

“Well before infants begin to speak, their cognitive and linguistic systems are powerfully linked,” Waxman said. “Infants themselves shape this link over their first few years, based on their experience with the language in which they are immersed and the objects and events that surround them.”

Waxman’s innovative, cross-linguistic developmental approach has reshaped standard views about language and cognitive development. She recently published results in Language Acquisition: A Journal of Developmental Linguistics that shed light on how infants acquire either English, Korean, or Mandarin words.

“To ‘crack the code’ of language, infants are guided by both nature and nurture,” Waxman said. “They are sensitive to universal properties of human language, but they are also exquisitely sensitive to the specific properties of their native language.”

Understanding the Natural World

Waxman also seeks to go beyond the “standard, white, middle-class, English-speaking communities that are the basis for the overwhelming majority of basic developmental research.” With Northwestern psychologist Douglas Medin and the University of Washington’s Megan Bang, she is examining children’s concepts and reasoning about the natural world. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the project’s goal is to identify how children learn about nature outside of the classroom and apply those findings to learning about science in school.

This work highlights both Native American and non-Native American communities, and the American Indian Center in Chicago and Wisconsin’s Menominee Tribe have been key partners.

Their findings show that native and non-native children bring different models of the natural world with them when they enter school. For example, non-native, Western-educated children tend to focus primarily on specific individuals or categories, while Native American children tend to focus more on relations among individuals and systems of knowledge. This indicates that Native American children often have a more elaborate understanding of ecosystems than many of their non-native peers.

“To design effective science curricula, it is essential that we understand what knowledge children bring with them to the classroom,” Waxman said. “Our research provides a firm foundation on which to build curricula that will advance the educational needs of the growing number of children from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds in U.S. schools.”

Interaction Between Nature and Nature

According to Waxman, aligning “state-of-the-art research in science with the very real developmental challenges facing young children” requires a nuanced understanding of the interaction between nature and nurture across development.

“Understanding this interaction will help us rise to the challenge of addressing issues including health, education, social disparities, and globalization,” she said.

Waxman is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Psychological Association, and Association for Psychological Science. She received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and taught at Harvard University before joining Northwestern in 1992.