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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


“Infant language research tackles nature, nurture”

UA professor of psychology and linguistics LouAnn Gerken was recently awarded a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to research how babies acquire language.

Gerken’s research will examine a hybrid of two existing theories, commonly known as the nature versus nurture debate. These opposing theories argue whether babies learn more by absorbing information from their environments or as a result of their instinctive abilities to learn.

Gerken has had an infant laboratory since about 1995.

“”The most interesting thing about infants, especially in the early months, is that they seem so helpless and incapable of doing much. So when we see how quickly they are able to take in information about the world and make sense of that information, it’s endlessly surprising,”” Gerken said.

Gerken said that in recent infant studies, babies have been given examples of language concepts in two different ways. One method includes repetitions of a smaller number of examples, while the other way gives several examples, but without any repetition. One study found that babies needed three examples to learn a linguistic concept. Gerken’s research will experiment with giving infants more than three examples of a concept. She said this new dimension will help confirm whether or not increasing the number of examples helps babies or hinders them.

She hopes to find that babies learn better with fewer examples.

“”I have some hints from earlier work that this is happening. The result I’m hoping for is not predicted by most computer learning models, and so the rest of the project will entail narrowing down why babies learn better from fewer examples,”” Gerken said.

Psychology senior Brooke White finds the project interesting and relevant. After taking a linguistics course, White learned that parents correcting their children’s words did not contribute much to their development.

“”If babies only learned off of what their parents told them, they’d have a very limited vocabulary. You learn more with trial and error. You don’t learn by following others,”” White said.

Along with the hybrid theory, White agrees that both nature and nurture elements are required for learning, but emphasized that nature characteristics are more important.

Psychology junior Andrew Hiemstra feels that the combination of the two theories is commonly accepted.

“”Some people will disagree with that, but pretty much everyone in psychology agrees that it’s down the middle somewhere,”” Hiemstra said.

Gerken remains enthusiastic about the hybrid theory and her studies.

“”I think the theory accounts for the fact that humans are very strongly affected by their environment in a way that nativist (nature) theories do not, but it also accounts for the fact that humans learn much more quickly (from just a few examples and using logic) in a way that associative learning (nurture) theories do not,”” Gerken said.

In Gerken’s research, she looks to three possible positive outcomes.

“”One is we can better design learning environments for babies, especially those we might consider to be at risk for language and other cognitive deficits. The second is that the results I’ve found with babies also have a parallel with adults, who were studied by another group of researchers at MIT. It seems that we’re all looking at a potentially basic principle about learning, which we might use to improve classroom presentation of material as well. Third, the research might allow us to create artificial learning systems that are more like humans and therefore more useful and flexible for a variety of tasks,”” Gerken said.

Gerken expects to be on the brink of finding her answers when the grant ends in three years.

Involving the right amount of difficulty in her experiments is one of Gerken’s challenges.

“”The stimuli have to have a pattern that’s learnable, but not boring,”” Gerken said.

Gerken feels that the research will potentially reveal something about the flexibility of human thinking and what types of environments will promote certain ways of thinking and acting.

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