Students and faculty working in the Language
and Cognitive Development Research Lab are investigating the beginnings of
language development in young children. Words are the
building blocks of language, and language is one of the key behaviors that
distinguishes us from animals. We know a great deal about when children say
their first words. We know much less about how they learn these words. In
the last 20 years, advances in the study of infant development have allowed
us to view the processes of early word learning for the first time.
Currently, we are conducting a series of
studies that looks at how children categorize and label objects.
On the surface, noun learning appears simple; many nouns name
things – things that you can touch, pick up, and show to
another. However, many of the early nouns that children
learn are not so simple. What does a “toy” look like,
for instance? Why is a bean bag chair a chair?
It doesn’t look like the other chairs, yet young toddlers quickly
learn that they are the same type of thing, with the same name.
In our lab, we are exploring which aspects of the object children use
to categorize objects. Is it function (ex., you sit on
chairs)? Or is it shape (most balls are round)? Or could children rely on
texture (teddy bears are soft)? Finally, is it that
children simply are trusting, and they rely on what their parents, and the
adults around them, say (ex., “that is not a toy!”).
While many researchers over the past 30 years
have been interested in word learning of typically developing children,
unfortunately little research has studied the development of children with
disabilities. It is very important for us to understand
word learning in “normal” children; that knowledge forms the basis for
judging if a child is learning things at an expected rate, or if they are
falling behind, and might need some help to get caught up with other
children. However, it is also essential to understand how
word learning occurs in children with special needs. Do
they use the same strategies as typically-developing children (but are
simply less efficient with those techniques)? Or, do they
possibly rely on other skills and other sources of information than most
children? Before we can successfully help children with
special needs, we must learn a) what skills and strategies typically
developing children use and b) what skills and strategies children with
special needs use. In the Language and Cognitive
Development Lab, Dr. Hennon and her students are working to investigate
those questions to help researchers, therapists, and parents better
understand how children learn words.