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In University language lab, researchers explore children’s thinking, speech

Researchers examine linguistic development, focus on different age groups

In an attempt to decipher how children acquire language, the recently founded Brown Language and Thought Lab is exploring how people form thoughts and linguistic expression from infancy to adulthood.

“We’re interested in how we learn to be able to put different concepts together into longer, more structured thoughts and how we learn to put different words together into longer, more structured sentences and what those two abilities have to do with each other,” said Roman Feiman, the director of the lab and assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences.

When asked why he chose to come to the University, Feiman said that “we have psychology, cognitive science and linguistics living together in one department,” which sets it apart from other institutions. With this structure, Feiman said his work sits “right at the intersection at a lot of different interests in this department.”

The lab currently has eight undergraduate students and one graduate student, all of whom are working on different projects. Among its many investigations, the lab is asking: “What is a structured thought like for an infant?” “What can infants do before they learn any language?” And, “What happens with kids when they learn a new language?”

The lab is currently recruiting children for their studies, said Jennifer Hernandez-Pina ’21, one of the undergraduates working in the lab who takes an interest in both developmental and abnormal psychology.

“In development, we’re interested in whether learning your first language actually gives you some sort of new ability to put thoughts together in a way that you couldn’t before, or whether it’s merely a way to express the kinds of thoughts you already were able to think,” Feiman said.

“Just because they start to say a word at one point doesn’t mean they understand it at that (same) point,” Feiman said. One of the projects the lab is currently working on is looking at how children acquire abstract words like “no” and “not,” he added.“The reason these words are interesting is because they mean things that you can’t point to.”

In the experiment to examine that question, researchers showed children a ball and two containers, a bucket and a truck, and put a screen in front of the containers so the child could not see them anymore. They then lowered the ball behind the screen and placed it in one of the containers. They told the children which container the ball was in, saying either that the ball “is” within a specific container or it “is not” within a specific container. With this phrase, they were testing to see whether children could process the word “not.”

“What we’re testing for here is something called disjunctive syllogism, specifically if infants can reason about this concept of ‘no’ or ‘not’ without language,” said Heather Tarr, the lab manager, who came to the University one month after Feiman and is interested in developmental psychology, intuitive physics and ideas of effort. The lab mainly experiments with “monolingual” and “neurotypical developing kids,” Tarr said. “If you know the baseline, you can account for anyone that’s behind.”

The lab allows for open discussion, collaboration and ample room to propose independent projects, said Kelsie Lopez ’20, one of the thesis students of the lab.  “We have lab meetings, and if you need feedback on a study, everyone’s always willing to help out.”

Beyond the culture of the lab, the methodology for research studies varies on a case-by-case basis, although the lab does conduct preliminary research to develop the questions they ask the children. “There’s a lot of things that could affect the answer you get to the question that you’re asking,” Tarr said, such as the “order of words that you say” or the “type of (word) stem” used.

One of the difficulties of working with children is that they need to be able to follow instructions before and throughout an experiment. In the case of the bucket/truck study, the children would have to “get up, walk over to this bucket, look inside it, leave their parent with whom they’re feeling secure and walk toward this experimenter who is a stranger,” Feiman said. All of these variables indicate that “kids would actually be able to reason by exclusion even earlier if (the task) didn’t require all these other demands.”

To deal with the potential issues that may arise from problems unique to young children, the lab programmed a similar version of the study as an iPad game for children to play to eliminate most of the interactions with an unfamiliar researcher.

Along the same technological lines, the lab is currently partnering with the computer science department to develop videos for their experiments. In addition, the two departments are collaborating on a “machine version” of the experiment that tests the same questions with a language learning computer algorithm, Feiman said.

The lab’s research has potential applications in a variety of educational settings. It is important to “understand which words are harder for kids to learn” in order to inform educators about how to identify typical developmental trends and help them explain difficult concepts to children.

The lab also includes adult participants to compare their language acquisition to children’s. Some of the research conducted with adults involves “trying to understand what other words you need to know in order to learn the words that you learn later,” Feiman said.

“Language acquisition and word learning, in particular, is sort of contingent on what words you’ve already learned,” Feiman added. The lab examines the extent to which adults can use context to decipher the meaning of a word being used. “If they can’t guess that, you might imagine it would be really hard for kids to do the same,” Feiman said.

Additionally, there is a large body of work surrounding implicit meanings, which is “something that adults really understand but kids don’t,”and the lab is currently trying to “uncover a little bit more of the mechanisms there,” Lopez said.

“The part of the mind that we’re interested in understanding is the part that is I think one of the coolest features of being a human,” Feiman said. “You can think new things very easily, very productively that no one has ever thought before. …We’re not trying to find a cure for anything or an intervention. We’re really trying to understand how the mind works.”


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