Project 9

The relation between early word acquisition and input variability (WP2)

ESR 9: Edina Bulatovic-Hajnal


Prof. Dr. Núria Sebastián-Gallés (University Pompeu Fabra, Spain)
Ágnes Melinda Kovács (Central European University, Hungary)

At the onset of language acquisition infants have an initial, general ability to learn symbolic forms. In other words, infants’ early symbol skills are amodal, because infants can interpret multiple as object names. During the beginning of word learning infants mostly acquire words and symbolic gestures as object labels and they can acquire both forms with equal facility. These two symbols shared some functional commonality but at some point during the lexical development they start to diverge from each other. The role of these two symbol types are not well understood, but it seems that the relation is mostly complementary: if infants acquire a verbal label as object name which previously was a symbolic gesture in their mental lexicon, the gestural label is automatically disappear from infants’ vocabulary.

It seems young infants have a general symbolic capacity to interpret verbal and non-verbal symbols as possible word forms, but this broad interpretation will narrow during the development and words turn into dominant symbolic forms.

During the language acquisition infants gain knowledge about what kind of elements can be part of linguistic system(s) and they have a strong preference for them. In other words, infants are able to explore the difference between symbolic gestures and words: symbolic gestures are not acquired as part of syntactically organized linguistic system.

With language experience, infants may start to emerge their preference for verbal lexical items but it is not limited only to their native language. This was supported by Bijeljac-Babic and colleagues (2009)’ findings: they showed that by 20 months of age, infants are capable learn rapidly new words from a foreign spoken language.

We would like to explore whether infants will be exposed to a non-verbal lexical items from an unfamiliar language, namely to a signs from Catalan Sign Language they will be able to establish the link between a sign and an object. Our hypothesis is that if infants are able to realize that these lexical items coming from other modality are inherent elements of a language, they will be capable to associate the sign to the object name. Briefly infants will assume that signs can be linguistic labels.