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Sign Language Promotes Object Categorization in Young Hearing Infants (WP-20-07)

Miriam Novack, Diane Brentari, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and Sandra Waxman

Language has a powerful effect on the human mind: during the first year of life, spoken language boosts core cognitive capacities including object categorization. Here the researchers ask: Does signed language exert the same cognitive advantage? They asked whether hearing, 4- to 6-month old infants will learn a novel category if exemplars are labeled in American Sign Language. Results indicate that signed language supports object categorization for 4-month-old infants, but not for 5- and 6-month-olds. Additionally, this developmental pattern was not observed when category exemplars were paired with only pointing and eye gaze, suggesting that the cognitive boost of seeing sign language is specific to language, and not just about the presence of communicative cues. These findings underscore the critical role of language on learning in early development and emphasize the influence of infants’ own language development on how they approach learning from novel communicative signals.

Miriam NovackPostdoctoral Fellow, Department of Psychology and IPR, Northwestern University

Diane Brentari, Mary K. Werkman Professor of Linguistics, University of Chicago

Susan Goldin-Meadow, Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology, University of Chicago

Sandra Waxman, Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

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