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Multiple paths to language: Capturing the language learning environment and early language knowledge in Tseltal Maya infants

Health & Psychology Mexico

Credit: David Cabrera on Flickr

Study Context

Through its historical research focus on Western, middle-class infants, theories of how children learn language imply that there is a single pathway to language, one that involves frequent adult speech to children even before children can meaningfully reply. Yet a parallel intellectual history in anthropology suggests that infants raised in contexts with little child-directed speech might develop distinct patterns of attention and skills at ‘listening in’. The researchers sought evidence from infants in an indigenous context in Mexico to bear on this hypothesis, and more generally, the degree to which language-learning strategies represent environmental adaptations, versus universal mechanisms.

Study Design

This study proposed to (1) develop a novel battery of culturally sensitive language assessments for use in an indigenous context in Mexico, informed by pilot data and naturalistic recordings from children’s own environments, and (2) use these assessments to test the presence of linguistic knowledge in infants exposed exclusively to overheard speech. The research team annotated and analyzed naturalistic recordings from 1521 experimental trials testing infants’ knowledge of high-frequency nouns (e.g., words for livestock and common baby foods) gathered in 2020 to document the daily language environments of the infants participating in the study.

Results and Policy Lessons

Results forthcoming.

2020 - ongoing
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