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IU’s 2017 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture reveals how babies learn first words

Mar. 8, 2017

Bottle, ball, dog, chair, toy. How do babies, as young as 8 to 10 months, learn their first words?

views from the infant and caregivers' point of views

The top image shows an infant from the caregivers' point of view. The lower image shows a caregiver from the infants' point of view. The crosshairs indicate the focus of the eyes. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CHEN YU

Language learning among older babies and toddlers, about age 2 and up, has been well-studied. But little is known about how babies first “break into language,” according to researcher Linda B. Smith, a Chancellor’s Professor and Distinguished Professor of psychological and brain sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. Smith is the campus’s 2017 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecturer. 

“Despite 30 years of intensive study, we do not know how infants learn their first words,” Smith said. “The language prowess gained by a 2-year-old isn’t available to a 1-year-old infant, yet infants that age and younger start learning object names. The question is, how do babies do it?”

Smith will talk about her longtime research on the connections between child development and learning in the 2017 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, at Indiana University Cinema, 1213 E. Seventh St. 

A highly regarded cognitive scientist, Smith has won many prestigious awards in her field, including the David E. Rumelhart Prize, awarded in Berlin, Germany, in 2013, and a Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. Smith, a faculty member at IU Bloomington since 1977, is author or co-author of more than 200 peer-reviewed articles. 

Smith and IU Bloomington colleagues have made numerous groundbreaking discoveries about how babies learn. In recent years, those discoveries include findings about how a child’s bodily posture may affect memory and learning, the impact of caregiver focus on the development of children’s attention spans, and new models of how a child’s visual environment affects early language development.

Smith’s collaborative research on child development and learning also forms the basis for the new Learning: Brains, Machines and Children project, the first initiative funded through IU Bloomington’s Emerging Areas of Research program. This interdisciplinary research team, which is receiving close to $3 million from the Office of the Provost and Office of the Vice Provost for Research, will use approaches from developmental psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence to study how learning in human children may inform learning in machines. 

The Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture series is co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President at IU Bloomington. Begun in 1980, this annual event recognizes the research achievements of an IU Bloomington faculty member and is accompanied by a $5,000 award to support the distinguished lecturer's continuing research. Past awardees include Elinor Ostrom, Susan Williams, Richard DiMarchi and Brian Powell.

The 2017 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a celebrating a vibrant community of scholars and catalyzing research.

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