Cognitive Science

Language and Cognitive Development Laboratory

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.