The Child Cognition Lab

University of Arizona | Tucson, AZ

A Message from Dr. Gómez

We used to think children didn't learn much about language until they began talking at about two years of age. However, recent research shows that children know a great deal about language before they ever utter their first words. For instance, infants can recognize the sound of their own name by 4 months of age, and by 6 months they know that "mommy" refers to their own mom and not another woman. By 7 months they are learning the sound patterns of new words. In fact, they may even be learning in the womb! The learning is very simple but it is learning nevertheless.

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In the Child Cognition Lab, we are interested in understanding more about the learning mechanisms involved in language acquisition. Because of this, we expose infants to language samples they have never heard before. Why don't we just use another natural language, like Spanish or Mandarin? Natural languages are extremely complex, making it hard to pinpoint exactly what infants are learning. Artificial languages give us more control over the learning environment. We find information in language we think might be useful to babies and build that into our artificial languages. Then, we look to see what kinds of things babies can learn in a short period of time.

Our studies have led to a number of exciting discoveries. For example, 12-month-olds learn something about the ordering of words in sentences after just a few minutes exposure. They can also generalize to sentences they have never heard before!

What can you do as a parent to promote language learning? One of the most important things is to read to your child. Babies love this activity, even at a very early age. By reading to your child, you convey excitement about books and language. You also create a warm, happy situation your child can look forward to. It's also important to create opportunities for interacting verbally. The more ways you can think of ways to get children talking about people and events, the better. Reading books together is a great way to encourage this kind of fun.

-Rebecca Gómez, Ph.D.