Distributed November 7, 2002
For Immediate Release

News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences

Infants use their own name to recognize other words in fluent speech

A Brown University study of 24 six-month-olds found infants recognized nouns and verbs when spoken in connection with their names. It is the youngest age at which the ability for word recognition has been documented.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A new study by Brown University researchers found very young infants used their own names and at least one other highly familiar name – usually a name associated with their mothers – to pick out adjoining new words in fluent speech.

The study documented the youngest age – six months – at which researchers have demonstrated the ability of infants to recognize words. Previous literature places that ability at seven-and-a-half months, and the ability to recognize their own name at six months, according to Karen Rathbun, a senior research technician in the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences. Rathbun presented the findings Saturday, Nov. 2, 2002, at the annual Boston University Conference on Language Development.

Long before they produce words, infants start learning facts about words, including their meanings, how their pronunciations vary, and how they are combined with other words to form phrases and sentences, Rathbun said. But in order to learn these facts about words, infants must first be able to separate and recognize individual words in speech.

That task is analogous to adults listening to a conversation in a foreign language and not being able to differentiate where one word ends and another begins. It might all sound like gibberish, Rathbun said, although listeners might be able to pick out their own names.

Until now, scientists have been looking at how infants use cues in speech – such as the stress patterns of words – to help determine where words begin. In contrast, the new study points to infants using knowledge – of their name and their mother’s name – to determine where certain words begin and end, said James Morgan, associate professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences, and director of the research team.

The study included 24 infants, each of whom sat on their mothers’ laps facing into a three-sided booth during the trial. Researchers positioned lights at eye-level on each of the three sides of the booth.

At the start of each trial, the light directly in front of the infant blinked to capture his or her attention, followed by a light on either side of the booth. When the infant turned toward the light on either side of the booth, a recording made up of a few sentences played; when the infant looked away, the recording stopped.

Two sets of recordings played, one with the baby’s name, and another with another name, each linked with a specific noun or verb. For example:

Sam’s bike has big, black wheels. The girl rode Sam’s bike. The bell on Sam’s bike was really loud. Sam’s bike could go very fast. The boy played with Sam’s bike. Sam’s bike always stays in the garage.

Jon’s cup was bright and shiny. A clown drank from Jon’s cup. The other one picked up Jon’s cup. Jon’s cup was filled with milk. She put Jon’s cup back on the table. Some milk from Jon’s cup spilled on the rug.

In this example, researchers tested Sam and Jon on their recognition of bike, and on their recognition of cup. They found Sam recognized bike, but not cup, while Jon recognized cup, but not bike.

The same recognition occurred when researchers paired the name associated with their mother – mommy or mama – with a word. Two additional groups of 20 infants each recognized the word whether it was a noun or a verb, said the researchers.

“In order to figure out what a word means, infants must first recognize its sound pattern,” said Morgan. Some highly familiar items, such as their own name or mommy give them “an anchor.” Further research needs to be done to examine whether other highly familiar words such as “you,” the most common word in spoken English, act as similar anchors, said Morgan.

Rathbun and Morgan worked with Heather Bortfeld, assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, and Roberta Golinkoff, the H. Rodney Sharp Professor, School of Education at the University of Delaware. The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health to Morgan.