Language is a social phenomenon and cues such as where someone is looking, what they are pointing to, and the gestures they make while talking are all informative in communication. Not surprisingly then, young children and infants have been shown to use social cues such as eye gaze, points and gestures in the process of understanding and learning language. This work has led some researchers to claim that infants and young children have special “mind reading” abilities—that children come hard-wired to read social cues. Recent research published in PLoS ONE suggests, however, that these social cues may benefit word learning, not through a special-purpose mechanism, but rather through the basic mechanisms of spatial memory.
Researchers at the University of Iowa and Indiana University presented 16-20-month-old infants with an ambiguous naming situation in which a novel object and it’s novel name were not presented at the same time, but were anchored to the same spatial location. Results show that children mapped a heard name to a memory of an object when the child’s attention was drawn to the location where the object was previously presented. This shows that objects and words are integrated or ‘bound’ together by the processes of spatial attention and spatial memory.
Representative data from a parent-child pair in Experiment 6 of Samuelson, Smith, Spencer & Perry (2011). Blue blocks show the time course of the object positions over a 45 second section of the interaction (starting at the top of the figure). Black bars refer to object 1 (binoculars in this example), white bars refer to object 2 (spring in this example). Hash marks across bars indicate naming. Right-left spatial position of the object is coded from the child’s perspective as in the parent’s hand on the left (LH), in the parent’s hand on the right (RH), on the table to the left (LT) or on the table to the right (RT). Screen shots from recordings are provided to illustrate the placement of objects at the point of the interaction indicated by the arrow. Insets in pictures are from the overhead cameras. As can be clearly seen, the parent kept the objects clearly separated—the binoculars (black bars) are kept on the child’s left and the spring (white bars) is on the right. In contrast, parent 2 did not maintain a consistent spatial segregation of the objects. Data from the comprehension test reveal that children of parents who kept the objects segregated, like this parent learned the words best. (Samuelson, Smith, Spencer & Perry (2011)).
Critically, data from an additional study show that reliance on spatial correspondence appears to play a role in everyday word learning by toddlers. Parents were asked to teach their children new object names. No mention of space was made, yet many parents consistently segregated different objects with different names on either side of the table. Children of parents who spontaneously did this demonstrated significantly more name learning. The importance of spatial consistency and its role in binding names to objects was predicted by a neural field model of working memory that uses a computer to simulate the brain processes at work as children learn words.
Why would parents use space to help their children learn new words? “Parents and children have the same type of cognitive system, and we know from other research that this system often uses space to help keep track of information,” says Associate Professor Larissa Samuelson. “When you read a book you can often remember where on a page a critical bit of information is even if you can’t remember the specific fact,” says Samuelson. “Parents are using this kind of processing to help their children learn. Thus, it is space, and not minds, that parents share with their children.”