New research shows the value of being as specific as possible when talking to babies
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New research shows the value of being as specific as possible when talking to babies

by Freya Lucas

October 01, 2020

New research, undertaken by Northwestern University, has shown the “powerful and well-documented advantage” of being as specific as possible when identifying objects for infants, showing that naming a set of distinct individual objects with the same noun invites infants to form an object category, rather than focusing on the unique aspects of each object.


In simple terms, the researchers set out to prove that the way an object is named (“this is a ball” versus “this is a colourful beach ball”) guides infants’ encoding, representation and memory for that object. 


Encoding objects in memory and recalling them later is fundamental to human cognition and emerges in infancy. 


Encoding is one of the three core elements of memory, and refers to the act of getting information into our memory system through automatic or deliberate processing. Once information is encoded, the other functions of memory (storage and recall) come into play. 


The more information that babies are able to encode at a young age, the greater their capacity for retaining new information becomes later in life. 


To conduct the research, infants in the study viewed four distinct objects from the same object category, each introduced in conjunction with either the same novel noun (Consistent Name condition), a distinct novel noun for each object (Distinct Names condition), or the same sine-wave tone sequence (Consistent Tone condition).


Researchers then tested whether infants remembered which objects they had just seen during training. To do so, infants viewed each training object again, this time presented in silence along with a new object from the same object category. 


Infants’ memory for the individual objects was sensitive to how they had been named. 


Infants in the Consistent Name condition showed poor recognition memory at test, suggesting that consistently applied names focused them primarily on commonalities among the named objects at the expense of distinctions among them. 


In contrast, infants in the Distinct Names condition recognised three of the four objects, suggesting that applying distinct names enhanced infants’ encoding of the distinctions among the individual objects. Infants in the control Consistent Tone condition recognised only the object they had most recently seen.


Alexander S. LaTourrette, co-author of the study, said the research was significant because it showed the value in being as specific as possible when speaking with infants. 


He used the example of telling a child “this is a dog” versus telling a child “this is Fido”. The child who is introduced to Fido is much more likely to recall Fido in future, because the naming was unique. 


When the same name is applied consistently to a set of objects, infants mostly encode the things the objects have in common (most balls are round, for example). When a unique name is applied to each object, infants are able to encode each object’s unique features (a soccer ball, golf ball and beach ball are all quite different).


Researchers said this provides the first demonstration that for infants as young as 12 months of age, whether and how an object is named has rapid and conceptually precise consequences on infants’ representation of that object.


“Moreover, the precision of infants’ responses reveal that naming objects, even a single naming episode, can have a lasting impact on how infants encode that object, represent it in memory and remember it later,” co-author Sandra Waxman said.


To read the findings in full, please see here

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