Bringing up babies

Bringing up babies

How do we develop language? Looking at it from the baby's point of view
February 1, 2002

Janet Werker spends most of her days interpreting the world from a baby's perspective.

For the 49-year-old developmental psychologist, reverting to infancy is crucial. Werker, a professor at the University of British Columbia, specializes in studying the foundations that enable babies to develop language-a task best appreciated from the babies' points-of-view.

That's why Werker is most often found in her new laboratory, where she observes babies responding to sight and sound stimuli. She uses the findings to help determine how the pint-sized subjects begin to organize language.

And what's Werker finding? Plenty. During the first year of life, starting from birth and possibly before, she says infants are not only immersed in this speech, they are carefully picking up the properties of their native language. This allows them to distinguish between one language and another, to learn the rhythms of language, and to pick out and learn individual sounds, syllables, and eventually words. But how are they picking all this up? That's the real mystery for Werker.

Preventing Delays
A Canada Research Chair holder, Werker hopes that by identifying the milestones on a child's path to acquiring language, it will eventually help the ones who are having trouble with speech and other developmental delays. She believes that if young children don't get their perceptual categories established properly during infancy, they might be at risk for a number of subtle language difficulties later in life.

In fact, there are solid clues that these perceptual categories get established very early. Many parents might be surprised at the things their babies have picked up by only two months of age. They may not be able to smile on cue yet, sit up, or even roll over. But it's the things they can do that are especially significant. They can already distinguish speech from the cacophony of background noise around them. And they prefer human speech to other, closely matched sounds.

Over the months that follow, babies figure out what constitutes a word-separating it from the stream of sounds that would otherwise overlap and mesh together. Even as newborns, babies can distinguish between their native language and a foreign one. Werker's research shows that newborn babies exposed to two languages throughout gestation demonstrate familiarity with each of those languages. Newborns can perceptually group content words (such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives) as distinct from function words such as prepositions and articles. By six months of age, they listen more carefully to content words. So although that baby lying in the bassinet may seem oblivious to the world around her, she's not. She's soaking up all the tools she needs to acquire a language, and is processing an amazing amount of information.

"Everybody underestimates babies," Werker says with a laugh. "One of the big take-home messages from this is: just because your little babies can't understand what you're saying, it doesn't mean it's not important to talk to them. They're tuning into what makes speech speech, and they're also picking up the properties of language. They need your input."

A parent herself, Werker began her research as a graduate student by watching her own children develop language. It helped to motivate her investigation into the perceptual sensitivities that babies are born with, sensitivities that help language emerge.

"The acquisition of language is still, to me, one of the most miraculous achievements. It's the quintessential human act," says Werker. "The rapidity and apparent ease with which most of us acquire language is difficult to explain, so I just became really interested in trying to unravel the story of how it is we do this."

Benefits

Parents—especially first-time parents—often aren't aware of the milestones involved in their children's speech development. It usually takes a teacher familiar with the children's progress to point out any problems. That's why many children with language disabilities aren't identified until they reach pre-school or junior kindergarten. And that may already be too late.

By the time problems are identified, some children may be three or four years old. Which means that, because of scarce resources, those same children may have to wait until they're five or six to get treatment.

The delay in treating even a subtle impairment, such as pronunciation difficulties, can result in lasting damage. It can affect a child's progress in school. Impair self-esteem. It can even influence later substance abuse and employment ability.

And that's why Werker's research into how babies acquire language is so crucial. She's developing techniques to describe and identify the milestones associated with the way they normally process speech and acquire language. Her research has the potential to help identify problems in early development. That way, medical professionals and speech therapists can intervene early-before a child's language development gets seriously off-track.

For instance, through her research, Werker has realized that young children who have trouble articulating words are not as able to use visual cues-in the same way as children of the same age who pronounce words correctly. This has helped her establish the importance of letting babies see the adults who talk to them.

How does Werker plan to put all this exciting research to good and practical use? Does she have a long-term goal? Absolutely. She wants to develop simple tests that a family doctor or a nurse can perform with young children. If those tests can identify children who aren't developing according to schedule, intervention through therapy could prevent a small problem from becoming a major cause for concern.

Werker's research and theories have far-reaching implications-and fit quite neatly into the big picture. Researchers have already documented a correlation between language and impressive reading and writing skills. Skills that are increasingly important in Canada's knowledge economy.

Her research is now addressing links between speech perception in infancy and subsequent literacy. As a result, more than ever, Werker is convinced of the need for early identification and help for children who need a hand to reach their full potential.

Partners

Although she finds herself mostly alone in new territory, Werker places a big emphasis on sharing information and working with others. Partnerships are still the key. Her innovative findings will enable all of her partners to build on the knowledge they gain about early brain development and language acquisition.

Werker's new CFI funded lab is housed at the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. She also has a newborn lab at the BC Children and Women's Health Centre. In addition, she is working with the Fraser Valley Health Region and setting up a satellite lab in a local health clinic. At the university, Werker is a member of the Human Early Learning Program, an interdisciplinary group of researchers that's examining child development "from cell to society."

And ask any researcher: What's the final crucial element? Funding. In addition to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund, a provincial funding agency, and UBC have provided financial assistance for the construction of Werker's new lab.