Pattern detection and language errors

One thing I’ve been thinking about as T learns new words is how our brains are wired to detect patterns and how useful that is for learning language.

Human brains are AMAZING at detecting patterns – and, thinking about and watching T learn new words, it’s so clear to me how important pattern detection is. For example, T has primarily learned the word “horse” (he doesn’t say it yet, but will make a clip-clopping noise when he sees one in a book) by looking at pictures of horses in books and playing with a toy horse that we have at home. But, all of these horses are different – some are realistic photos, some are cartoonish and colored unrealistic colors, some are more realistic cartoon drawings, etc. So, T has learned to generalize across all these different instances of horses to learn some pattern like “a horse is an object with four legs, a longish neck, and a mane, and it makes a clip-clopping noise.” Thinking about this is kind of amazing to me!

But, sometimes it’s possible to learn a pattern incorrectly – for example, by learning a pattern that is a bit too broad. An example of this might be if T had learned the pattern “a horse is an object with 4 legs and is sometimes brown” – this pattern might lead him to identify a picture of a cow as a horse (which sometimes happens with one particular cow in a book that we have :)).

T frequently makes pattern errors that both amuse and interest me. One of the more humorous ones involves his identification of pictures of my father (T’s grandfather, whom we call “thatha” – “grandfather” in Tamil). My father wears transition-lenses glasses (so they frequently look like sunglasses, even inside). T recently saw a picture of Ray Charles and insistently pointed at the photo yelling “Thatha! Thatha!” I guess T’s “pattern” for his grandfather is an older man who wears sunglasses!

One of the things about T’s errors that interests me is which words he tends to make more “errors” with. I think that he tends to “correctly” use nouns much more than non-nouns, and thinking about this in terms of pattern detection, I think this makes sense. I think that the “pattern” for most nouns is generally easier to deduce than for non-nouns. For example, “ball” is a fairly concrete clear concept, compared to, for example, “up” and “down.” “Up” and “down” are used in so many different contexts – lifting T up and down, picking something up off the floor, going up and down steps, etc, whereas “ball” is basically a round toy (although T will sometimes call fruit like melons balls!).

And, I think that T tends to have more interesting interpretations (and by this, I mean broad!) for when words like “all done” and “bye bye” should be used. Perhaps this is because he’s still trying to learn the “pattern” for these words!

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E-I-E-I-O!

T (13 months) has been playing around with lots of different vowel sounds lately. For awhile, it seemed like he was mostly saying “ahhh” and “aaa,” but lately, he has added “ee,” “ayy,” “oh,” and “uh.” Some cute highlights – he’s started saying “uh oh” – usually while looking us in the eye, grinning, and throwing food/utensils off his high chair and pointing for us to pick them up (I don’t think that’s exactly an “uh oh”?!). And, out of the blue, he’s started singing “E I E I O”! I THINK this is because of the song “Old McDonald,” but I don’t usually sing this to him, so I’m not totally sure where he learned this (daycare?!). He’s also started very reliably saying “ohhh” to get us to open a box, which is something we’ve worked hard on with speech therapy, and it finally clicked this week!

I’ve noticed that, with all of these new vowels, T tends to say the vowel in isolation, rarely combining it with a consonant (when T says consonants, they tend to be combined with his earlier mastered vowels, like “aaa” and “ahh” – so he will say “ba,” “da,” etc.). But, after a few days of experimenting with his new vowels, I’ve noticed that T has just now started combining them with consonants – and, interestingly, he seems to mostly be combining them with “d.” So, he will babble “doh,” “duh,” and “die” now. I wrote here about how I thought T’s favorite consonant was “d” (based on when he first said it and how frequently he says it), so I wonder if he’s starting to combine his new vowels with “d” because it’s his favorite and/or the easiest for him to say? If that’s the case, I predict that we will next start to hear “bye” and “no!”

T has also started to pick up a few new words that he will say pretty reliably – he will say “buh buh” while waving goodbye, and just in the past two days, has started saying “all done” (pronounced “ah duh”). He has started saying “mama” quite a bit, as well, but I think I might have inadvertently taught him that the word for photograph is “mama” – I may have been a bit overzealous pointing out myself in photographs, and I’ve noticed that T will now excitedly point to ANY photograph, regardless of whether I’m in it, and shout “mama”!

“Sssss” is for “Snake”

I wrote here about working with T on identifying and producing the Ling-6 sounds (“mmm,” “ooo,” “eee,” “ahhh,” “shhh,” and “sss”). T has made some great progress with producing these sounds!

Now, he very consistently will say “mmm” when he picks up a toy ice cream cone, and, he will even say “mmm” when he sees a picture of ice cream in one of his books! (However, he is not at all interested in eating ice cream – strange!).

But, the latest, and I think most exciting development, is that T has now started pretty saying “ssss” when he picks up the snake toy! “Ssss” is a tricky sound – it’s tricky to hear because it’s a relatively high frequency sound, which is usually difficult for people with hearing loss to hear. It’s also tricky to say – even children with normal hearing tend to take longer to consistently make this sound. Although right now T only says “sss” when he picks up the snake toy and won’t say it if I prompt him, it’s exciting that he can hear this sound and has started to figure out how to produce it!

First Word!

We’re calling it! T’s first word is “bubble,” pronounced “ba-buh” or “ba-bwah.”

I wrote here about how we weren’t sure if T’s attempts at “bubble” counted as a word. Since then, T has started pointing to the bottle of bubbles and shouting “ba-buh!” to get us to blow bubbles. It’s clear that he’s trying to say “bubble,” and he’s matching the first consonant and first vowel, and he’s trying to get us to do something, so we’re counting it as a word!

 

Singing to Babies

(Note: a lot of the research with infants I’ve been writing about has been done with normally-hearing infants. Although there’s a lot of great research on children with Cochlear Implants, I’m finding that there’s less research on children with mild hearing losses, especially for infants and in interesting areas like music. So, I end up writing about studies that have been done with normally-hearing infants, and I’m really not sure how they translate!)

It’s been clear since T was just a few weeks old that he loved hearing me sing (this was a surprise to me, since pretty much no one else enjoys hearing me sing :)). Since then, I’ve sang to him A LOT – I sing when I play with him, when he’s cranky in the stroller or carrier, lullabies at bedtime, etc. I started wondering what research has been done on singing to babies, so I did a little searching.

One interesting question is whether/how we change how we sing when we sing to a baby compared to singing to an adult or to no one. It’s pretty obvious that people talk to babies differently than they talk to adults – the typical “baby-speak” is called “infant-directed speech” and it has a lot of potential benefits for babies to acquire language. Infant-directed speech is usually characterized by slower speech, repetitiveness (e.g., “look at the doggie! the doggie says woof! hi, doggie!”), higher pitch, and more pitch variation (i.e., MUCH less monotone than when talking to adults). This probably helps babies learn new words and understand the structure of language (e.g., the concept of phrases and sentences) by helping them focus their attention on particular words or groups of words by repeating and emphasizing them.

But do adults sing differently to babies than they do in their absence (even when singing the same song)? This is an especially interesting question, because many of the ways we change our speaking when it’s directed to a baby aren’t easily done in singing – for example, a particular song has constraints on pitch (based on the tune of the song) and rhythm, so it’s harder to vary pitch and rhythm when we sing and still maintain the song. But,it turns out that, similar to infant-directed speech, adults sing differently when the singing is directed to a baby! Studies ([1] and [2]) have shown that when we sing to babies (rather than singing the same song in their absence), we sing with a higher pitch (just like in infant-directed speech) and with a slower tempo (also like in infant-directed speech). And, even though mothers tend to sing more to their babies than fathers, fathers show the same pattern of singing in a higher pitch and with a slower tempo, so there may be something intrinsic about the characteristics of infant-directed singing. (See [2])

And, it turns out that the way we change our singing when it’s directed to a real, live baby and not just an empty room is pretty robust – adults listeners are really good at identifying instances in which another adult was singing to a baby rather than to an empty room – that is, which songs were “infant-directed.” (See [1]).  The adult listeners tended to say that the “infant-directed songs” were sung with a “more loving tone of voice.” ([1]).

I tried to think of whether I sing differently when I’m singing to T than when I’m singing by myself, and it’s hard to say, mostly because I rarely sing if it’s not to T 🙂 But, I wouldn’t be surprised if I sound more loving when I’m singing to T than when I’m singing by myself!

 

On a totally unrelated topic, another interesting study that I came across looked at the effects of moms singing on their babies’ arousal levels as measured with cortisol in saliva ([3]).  They found that babies (averaging 6 months in age) who had relatively low cortisol levels initially (for example, if they weren’t paying attention to anything in particular and were sort of just chilling) had an increase in cortisol after their mom sang to them for 10 minutes – that is, they were more aroused after hearing their mom sing and more in a “playtime” state. Conversely, babies who had higher initial cortisol levels had a decrease in cortisol after their mom sang to them for 10 minutes – that is, they went from a more aroused state to a more chilled out state after their mom sang to them.

This was interesting to read, because I’ve definitely found that my singing to T can have totally different effects on him, even singing the same song! Sometimes, he’ll get really excited and wound up and ready to play, and other times, he’ll totally relax and often, will get kind of drowsy.

References

[1] Trainor, L.J., “Infant Preferences for Infant-Directed Versus Noninfant-Directed Playsongs and Lullabies.” Infant Behavior and Development. (19) 83-92 (1996). (full text here)

[2] Trehub, S.E. et al. “Mothers’ and Fathers’ Singing to Infants.” Developmental Psychology. Vol. 33, No. 3. 500-507 (1997). (full text here)

[3] Shenfield, T. et al. “Maternal Singing Modulates Infant Arousal.” Psychology of Music. Vol. 31, No. 4. 365-375. (2003). (full text here)

What counts as a word?

I was talking to two friends recently who have babies who are close in age to T (11 months), and we talked about how you know when your baby said their first word. Before I had a baby, I never thought this would be so hard to determine! It’s pretty easy to pinpoint exactly when your baby rolled over or started crawling, and it seemed like first words would be equally easy to identify. Based on our experience, and talking to my friends, it seems that this isn’t so easy!

T has been babbling “mama” and “dada” for a few months now, but it doesn’t seem like he ascribes any meaning to those (he rarely says “mama,” but I would say his favorite utterance is “dada” – he’ll shout “dada” not only when he sees my husband, but also when he sees himself in the mirror, when he notices we’ve left the baby gate open, when he sees the vacuum cleaner, at random people walking on the sidewalk, or just randomly when he’s talking to himself – so I don’t think he’s attached “dada” to his dad). Based on that, I don’t think “mama” and “dada” count as words for T yet, since they seem more like he’s just playing around with making different sounds.

There are two things T says that seem closer to being “real” words. First, when we play with bubbles, T will pretty reliably shout “baba!” to get us to blow on the bubble wand. Secondly, there’s a book that T loves (“Dear Zoo”) that has a lion in it – T has been OBSESSED with the lion since the day he first saw it. For the past week, T has been starting to shout “LYYYYY” as soon as we turn to the lion page. Do these count as “real” words?!

I’m not sure! In the paper I reviewed here about infants’ transitions from babbling to words, the researchers considered a child’s utterance a word if: 1) what the child said matched the “real” word by at least 1 consonant and 1 vowel; 2) the utterance was communicative (e.g., directed at someone); and 3) it was clear the child was attempting a word (e.g., referring to a a particular object, imitating the parent, or the parent recognized what the child was saying).

Based on these criteria, it seems like “baba” for “bubble” and “lyyy” for “lion” might be considered words – T will clearly say these things in specific contexts (when he wants bubbles or when he sees the lion on the page), and in those contexts, we are interacting with him. They also match the “real” word (“bubble” or “lion”) by the beginning consonant and the subsequent vowel.

But, my hesitation in considering these first words for T is that he will say “baba” and “lyyy” either talking to himself or in contexts that have nothing to do with bubbles or lions. Also, he hasn’t generalized the concept of a lion to lions other than in this specific book – there’s another book that we read that features a lion (“Goodnight Gorilla”), and T has never said “lyyyy” when he sees that lion – so can that really count as a word if he doesn’t understand the concept of a lion? I don’t know!

One last little story about T and words! There was a book that T went nuts for that we checked out from the library – “The Naked Book.” He would start grinning, squealing, and kicking as soon as we pulled it out and he saw the cover. I think we renewed it from the library about 8 times before we finally returned it. Anyway, one time I brought it out, and, when T saw the cover, he shouted what I could have sworn was “NA-GUH!!!” – or, a pretty good approximation of “naked!” I couldn’t get him to repeat it over the next few days, though. I’m kind of relieved – I don’t know what I’d do if T’s first word had been “naked” (I guess lie in his baby book and say his first word was “mama”?!).

 

Consonant Confusions

One thing that always makes me laugh is hearing T confuse different consonants. Besides being really cute, the substitutions of one consonant for another makes sense based on the place of articulation and manner of articulation. (I wrote more about consonants here!)

For example, T has sometimes been substituting “ba” for “ma” – both of these have a bilabial place of articulation (the lips are pressed together when you make the sound), but “ba” is a stop consonant (that’s the manner of articulation – you stop airflow with the lips before you release the lips to make the “ba” sound), whereas “ma” is a nasal consonant (air flows through the nose while you make the “mmm” sound). I’ll often ask T to “say mama!” and he’ll grin and say “baba!”

One other SUPER cute thing he’s been doing this week is substituting kisses for “ba” and “ma” – if I ask him to say either “bubbles” or “mama,” he’ll sometimes blow a kiss! This was SO interesting to me, because while blowing a kiss isn’t a proper consonant, it is a bilabial action, just like “ba” and “ma”!