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Childhood Programs and Development

Connecting Language and Concepts 

How do infants make a connection between how an object is named and the concept—or representation—of the object? IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman and her colleagues investigate these questions in new research in Scientific Reports. Building on their earlier in-person work with infants, the researchers conducted two online studies, one with 55 12-month-olds and one with 48 7-month-olds. In both studies, pictures of stuffed animals were shown to the babies who heard made-up names, like “vep,” spoken for each animal. For half of the babies, each of these animals was given a unique name; the other half heard the same name applied to all four animals. Next, babies viewed the very same animals, this time paired with a new animal and presented in silence.  The researchers found that when each animal had received a unique name, infants successfully recognized the animal and distinguished it from others. But when all animals had been given the same name, babies failed to recognize even the most recently seen animal. Both the older and younger babies showed the same pattern, although 7-month-olds could remember fewer objects. The studies show that even before infants know many words, they form a precise, conceptual link between object naming and representation. As they grow older, their capacity to distinguish unique examples within categories improves. The researchers conclude that infants as young as 7 months can connect language and concepts. Waxman is Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology.  

'I See What You Are Saying:' Hearing Infants’ Visual Attention and Social Engagement in Response to Spoken and Sign Language

Do infants exposed to sign language pay attention and engage in the same ways as infants learning spoken language?  IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman and her colleagues investigate this topic in their study published in Frontiers in Psychology by comparing how hearing infants, with no exposure to sign language, deploy their attention to either spoken or sign language. The researchers observed 45 infants between the ages of four and six months, none of whom had been exposed to sign language. All infants viewed a collection of colorful toy objects on a screen. What varied was how these objects were labeled. Infants in the sign language condition (22) observed as a woman labeled them in sign language (American Sign Language), and infants in the spoken language condition (23) observed as the woman labeled them in spoken language (English). The researchers measured infants’ visual attention and their spontaneous vocalizations during the task. All infants were highly engaged and vocalized equally during the task. Still, infants’ visual attention was higher in the spoken than in the sign language condition (devoting 92% vs. 80% of the available time looking in the spoken and sign conditions, respectively). These results establish that infants as young as 4- and 6-months old engage well with communicative partners using either the spoken or signed modality. This new work has implications for theories of language acquisition and should shed light on optimizing learning in deaf and hearing infants.

The Role of Empathy in Chinese Adolescences' Preventative Health Behavior During COVID-19

Previous research has shown that empathy can be an effective tool at encouraging adolescents to assist others and act for the good of society. In the Journal of Adolescent Health, developmental psychologist and IPR associate Yang Qu and his colleagues explore the role of empathy in adolescents’ preventive health behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers asked 442 Chinese seventh graders, who were on average 13 years old, to complete two surveys in July and September 2020. In the first survey, they reported their empathic concern and perspective taking by answering questions such as “I am often quite touched by things that I see happen” and “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,” along with their concern for their personal health. In both the first and second survey, the adolescents reported their preventive health behavior (e.g., practicing social distance and wearing a mask when going outside) and COVID-related worry. The results reveal that adolescents who reported greater empathetic concern in the first survey were more worried about COVID-19 and engaged in more preventive health behavior. This suggests that higher levels of empathic concern in adolescents were predictive of more frequent preventive health behavior motivated by their desire to help others. Future studies looking at the connection between empathy and health behaviors can examine participants over longer periods and explore how other factors may influence behavior.