The most informative home video

My family has some home videos. Some are on actual cassettes, and others are on our iPhones or in the cloud. They’re mostly short, and like photographs, they’re somewhat staged. In many cases, they show premeditated or sugar-coated shots of our lives.

But MIT researcher Deb Roy has some home videos that break the mould I just described. Roy and his wife set up video cameras to record every room of their house for about 10 hours a day for the first three years of their son’s life. They have more than 200,000 hours of data. Analyzing it is a mammoth and ongoing task, but it has helped answer some highly-debated and longstanding questions about how humans develop language. For example, one paper describes how this data can be used to predict the “birth” of a spoken word.

What factors facilitate word learning?

Not surprisingly, the child produced shorter words before longer words, as well as words that tended to occur in shorter sentences, and words he had heard often before rarer words. To me, these are intuitive features of words that make them easier to learn.

But there were also some less intuitive features that predicted how early the child would produce certain words. These features were more contextual, taking into account the when and where he heard words in the time leading up to his first production.

One feature that predicted a word’s birth was based on how often the boy heard the word in different rooms throughout the house. Some words were spatially distinct–for example, “breakfast” usually occurred in the kitchen, and others were more spatially dispersed, like the word “toy.” Spatial distinctiveness tended to help him learn words faster.

The researchers also measured temporal distinctiveness, or when during the day the word was likely to be heard by the toddler. Again, “breakfast” was temporally distinct, occurring almost exclusively in the morning, while the word “beautiful” was much more dispersed throughout the day. As with spatially distinct words, the researchers found that more temporally distinct words– those that were most often said at a similar time during the day — were learned sooner than those whose uses were spread out throughout a typical day.

Finally, they looked at the contextual distinctiveness of each word. This is basically the variation in the language that the child tended to hear with the word of interest. The word “fish” was contextually distinct, for example, often occurring with other animal words or words related to stories. “Toy,” on the other hand, occurred with a much greater variety of words and topics, so it was less contextually distinct. As with spatial and temporal distinctiveness, contextual distinctiveness made a word easier to learn.

This TED talk blew my mind.

Why does distinctiveness affect word learning?

Children learn language through conversations that are inseparable from the everyday life contexts they occur in. Those contexts are not just incidental features of word learning, but are actually crucial variables affecting how language is learned. This work is a reminder that language use and development is actually about much more than language, just as thinking is something that requires much more than just a brain. We humans are inseparable from our environments, and those environments play a big role in shaping how we think and navigate the wonderfully messy world we live in.

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