Toy Talk: A Way to Boost Your Child’s Language Development

If you’re like most parents, you’ve worried at least once or twice about whether your child is hitting milestones on time. You’ve also probably wondered if there’s anything you could or should be doing to help their development – more tummy time for your infant? talk to them more? It’s hard to know what’s actually useful, and it can be really overwhelming! When it comes to language development, however, Dr. Colleen Fitzgerald, a professor at Bowling Green State University, has some easy to implement and effective ideas.

Learning language is one of the most amazing and complicated things your baby or toddler will do. Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t make it easy for them! English is full of tricky rules and exceptions, which take time and practice to master.

Talking in third-person singular is particularly complicated. For example, we say “I want,” “we want,” “they want,” and “you want,” but have a different word for the third-person singular: “he/she wants.” Another example is pronouns: “he,” “she,” “him,” “her,” and “his.” Unlike first and second-person pronouns, these convey gender. There’s also an added wrinkle – while there’s a separate masculine possessive pronoun (“his”), “her” is used for both the possessive and as an object of a sentence (“it’s her ball” and “give the ball to her“).

Learning words associated with third-person difficult is difficult because  we usually talk to babies and toddlers in first and second person – it’s hard to learn words that you rarely hear.

Luckily, Dr. Fitzgerald has an easy to implement suggestion for increasing exposure to third-person words: “toy talk.” She explained that the first step is to give toys, like a truck or doll, a name, and then use those names to talk about the toys.

She said, “if you’re naming the toys, and talking about the toys, it changes the conversation to a third-person singular conversation.” This naturally exposes children to third-person singular verbs (“Teddy wants a cookie”) and third-person pronouns (“let’s give the cookie to him”).  She explained, “you’re not telling parents you need to cut out modal verbs or auxiliary verbs, that would never work! That’s what so cool about toy talk – if you can get parents to focus on an object instead of ‘I’ and ‘you,’ those things come along.”

Initial studies show that teaching parents to engage in “toy talk” with their toddlers can actually shift the language development trajectory of normally-developing kids. So, on top of having some fun with your kids’ toys, you could help supercharge their language development – what’s not to love?!

Note: I had intended this to be a rewrite of a previous blog post, “Me Like Pronouns!,” with an intended audience of this post of parents with babies/toddlers (with no specific scientific/linguistic knowledge). However, in my attempt to write for a different audience, the content of the post changed substantially! 


“Me like pronouns!”

Although it might not seem like it to native English-speaking adults, pronouns are tricky! Listening to a toddler talk can amusingly illustrate the pitfalls. For example, it’s common to hear a toddler say “me want it” or “him going fast.” This type of error, where a pronoun that’s used for an object of a sentence (e.g., “me” or “him”) is instead used as a subject of a sentence, is called a pronoun case error. Colleen Fitzgerald, a professor at Bowling Green State University, has recently been studying how toddlers learn to correctly use pronoun case.

When asked what makes learning pronoun case so difficult, Dr. Fitzgerald explained that there are four features reflected in pronouns: number of people, gender, person (e.g., first-person, second-person, and third-person), and case. “Some of these features are more related to cognitive real-life categories, like number – we mark that grammatically in pronouns, using ‘I’ vs. ‘we,’ for example, but that’s something a child already has a cognitive construct for – they know the concept of one thing versus more than one thing. I think case is the hardest of the four features, because there’s really not a real-life correlate.”

In a study published in 2017, Dr. Fitzgerald looked at whether there is an association of when children make first-person pronoun case errors (e.g., substituting “me” for “I”) with when children make third-person errors (e.g., substituting “him” for “he”). She transcribed play sessions of toddlers with their parents, and followed the toddlers from when they were just under two years old to when they were three to determine the trajectory of errors as the children got older.

She found that toddlers tended to either make case errors for both first-person pronouns and third-person pronouns, or use correct pronoun case for both. This result suggests that toddlers develop a generalized paradigm for understanding pronoun case rather than learning each individual pronoun piecemeal.

Reflecting on the broader implications of the study, Dr. Fitzgerald said, “it’s widely debated – what are children born with? Learning language is such a complicated task and they do it so quickly!” She described the two academic camps, saying “on one side, there’s the camp that includes Noam Chomsky, which says children aren’t starting from nothing, they’re born with a language acquisition device that makes them ready to learn grammar. On the other side is the construtivist perspective that says that learning language is just learning patterns, like any other skill.” Contextualizing the results of the study, she said, “in the pronoun study, I interpreted the results as being support for a generative approach, more like Chomsky’s perspective.” However, she said that she is reluctant to fall into one camp over another. “I see that debate as being part of a different generation, and I try not to fall into that, because it can be limiting to be associated with a particular perspective.”

What’s In A Word?

A baby elephant can walk moments after birth. In comparison, human babies seem downright pathetic! It turns out, however, there’s a lot happening in a baby brain: while listening to mom or dad talk, they’re busy subconsciously performing statistical analysis to accomplish the most daunting of tasks – learning language.

One of the first things anyone learning a new language has to learn is what chunks of sound make up a word. This is a crucial first step – if you don’t know that “bike” is a word, you can’t assign it a meaning of “a two-wheeled vehicle.” This is a harder problem than you might guess. Gaps or pauses in sound aren’t great indicators of word boundaries. There might be no gap between two distinct words, or large gaps within a single word.


A representation of someone saying “I really like Mississippi.” Notice how there’s no gap between “really” and “like,” but there are a few gaps within “Mississippi.”

Glenn Jones, whose in-laws speak Tamil, complained about his attempts to learn, saying “I’d hear the equivalent of, ‘let’s go bike riding today,’ and ask my wife, ‘what does ingto mean?’ It was impossible to learn any Tamil words!” It’s a tough problem for anyone learning a new language, let alone a baby.

For most of human history, it’s been unknown how babies learn to identify words. This changed in 1996, when Jenny Saffran and colleagues found that 8 month-old infants do this using subconscious statistical analysis.

The scientists played a steady, monotonous stream of made up words for the babies, with no gaps between words . There were three made up words, each of three syllables: “bidaku,” “padoti,” and “golabu,” which were repeated in a random order for two minutes. Because there were no gaps between words or any emphasis at a start of a word, the only clue to what constituted a word was how often one syllable followed another. For example, “da” was always before “ku,” “pa” was never before “ti,” and “ku” was only before “pa” when “bidaku” was before “padoti.”

They found that, even hearing the made up words for a mere two minutes, babies were able to distinguish a word from a non-word. For example, babies recognized “bidaku” as a word, and also knew that “dakupa” was not a word. Babies would have occasionally heard “dakupa” – in the case where they heard “bidaku padoti.” However, they would have heard “bidaku” roughly three times as often. Using only these relative probabilities, the babies were able to distinguish words from non-words. In other words, a non-English speaker hearing phrases such as “pretty baby” and “pretty hair” will eventually learn that “pretty” is a word and “tyba” and “tyhair” are not words, because “ty” is likely to follow “pre,” whereas “ba” and “hair” are less likely to follow “ty.”

The landmark study by Saffran and colleagues set off decades of research in the statistical learning abilities of babies. More importantly, it caused a major shift in how we view babies. Describing the state of knowledge in 1996, the study noted that “young humans are generally viewed as poor learners.” Debunking that misconception is perhaps one of the most consequential impacts of the study!




Why You Should Take Your Date to a Chopin Concert

girl-piano-grand-piano-shoes.jpgIt’s a phenomenon familiar to reality TV show connoisseurs: misattribution of arousal. A contestant goes on a daredevil date (say, bungee jumping) with an eligible bachelor, and the two fall in love (or at least, fleeting lust).

Psychologists have studied misattribution of arousal since the 1960s. Decades of work has shown that the symptoms of fear, such as an increased heart rate and sweating, mimic those of physical attraction, causing misattribution. For example, activities that evoke fear, such as roller coaster rides, can prime someone to see a potential partner as more attractive. However, scientists in Austria recently found that a far less intense activity – listening to 19th century piano solos – has the same effect.

The team, led by Manuela Marin, played snippets of piano music for research subjects prior to showing an opposite sex face. Subjects then rated both the attractiveness of the face as well as their desire to date the pictured person. The researchers varied the complexity and the pleasantness of the music, building on previous work that showed  that complex music is more emotionally evocative than simple music.

They found that women rated male faces as more attractive and indicated a greater desire to date the pictured man after listening to complex music than after listening to simple music or silence. This was true regardless of whether the music was described as pleasant or not. However, there was no effect for men rating female faces.

The team was intrigued by the finding that only the complexity of the music, not the pleasantness, mattered. Because unpleasant complex music  boosted attractiveness, researchers were more confident tying the results to the misattribution of arousal phenomenon, rather than due to a general influence of listening to complex music. Indeed, previous studies have shown that viewing even highly violent imagery can prime physical attraction.

Before snagging tickets to take your next date to a piano concert, a word of caution – the study only used heterosexual Austrian undergrads as subjects. Because of the limited sample, the scientists warn that it is difficult to pin down the effect of music on sexual attractiveness. Additionally, only women were primed to find men more attractive, while more intense stimuli yield a robust effect across sexes. Given the caveats, you may be better off taking your next date to an amusement park.


The Corrupt Inner World Of Infants

20160417_182524(0)We’re quick to grab the pitchforks (or at least grab our phones to tweet angrily) when news of a corruption scandal breaks. But what if we’re being hypocritical? Indeed, researchers at Yale have found that even the sweetest and most innocent among us aren’t immune from accepting bribes, if the payoff is big enough — they found that babies as young as 1 are willing to overlook bad behavior in exchange for graham crackers.

Arber Tasimi and Karen Wynn performed morality plays for babies and tested their reactions to the actors. In a first play, a lamb puppet struggled to open a box, and a rabbit puppet helped the lamb to retrieve a toy from the box, to the lamb’s obvious joy. In a second play, the rabbit slammed the lid shut on the lamb. The babies were then offered graham crackers by a good rabbit puppet and a bad rabbit puppet and were allowed to choose treats from one.

When the good puppet offered one graham cracker and the bad puppet offered two, the babies tended to spurn the bad puppet, even though it was offering a slightly bigger payoff. However, when the bad puppet upped its offer to eight graham crackers, the babies tended to choose the eight graham crackers over the one offered by the good puppet. The “findings suggest that, when the winnings are modest, children will avoid doing business with a wrong-doer,” however, “when the stakes are high, children show more willingness to deal with the devil,” the scientists explained in the Washington Post.

Although previous studies have shown that babies have a strong sense of morality and try to avoid interactions with people who have committed social wrongs, Tasimi and Wynn showed that this innate sense of fairness can be overcome with a little bribery, provided the bribe is tantalizing enough.

Although it’s tempting to despair at the corruptibility of babies, the researchers cautioned that it’s unclear why they accepted the large offering from the bad puppet. One possibility is that the babies were unable to resist their personal gain. However, a competing possibility is that the babies viewed the larger offering from the bad puppet as a sign of contrition for their bad behavior, and, by accepting the graham crackers, they were accepting the bad puppet’s apology — an excuse unlikely to work for an adult.

Read the Washington Post’s coverage of this study.


What’s With All the Tomato Juice Drinkers on Airplanes?!

Ever wondered why there always seem to be so many people who ask for tomato juice as their in-flight beverage? Reflecting on her penchant for mile-high tomato juice, frequent flier and retired travel agent Glenda Bilderback joked, “I think the smell of jet fuel triggers a bloody mary craving!” But maybe it’s actually the sound of the jet engine that’s responsible?

Researchers at Cornell University recently found that noisy environments, such as that of an airline cabin, heighten the sensation of umami tastes, which may explain an increased preference of fliers for tomato juice.

Umami, along with salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, is one of the five basic tastes, although perhaps the least understood one. Umami has been described as giving foods a “savory” taste, and is found in foods such as fish, soy sauce, mushrooms, fermented foods, and in tomato products, such as ketchup and tomato juice.

Researchers Kimberly Yan and Robin Dando looked at the effect of loud noises on taste perception of each of the five basic tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami). They had experiment participants taste liquid solutions that each embodied one of the five tastes. The solutions were tasted in either silence, or while listening to loud, simulated airplane noise (as if they were in an airplane cabin). Participants were then asked to rate the intensity of each of the solutions that they tasted – that is, they were asked to rate how sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or umami each solution tasted, while tasting the solution in either silence or while listening to airplane noise.

Yan and Rando found that there was no effect of noise on the taste of salty, sour, or bitter solutions – regardless of noise levels, the salty, sour, and bitter solutions tasted the same. However, they found divergent results for the sweet and umami solutions. Participants tended to rate the sweet solutions as tasting flatter, or less intensely sweet, when they tasted the sweet solutions in the simulated airplane cabin. Conversely, they rated the umami solutions as having an enhanced, or more intense, umami taste when tasted while listening to the airplane noise.

The effect of the auditory system on taste perception may be mechanical in origin – the chorda tympani, which is the branch of the facial nerve originating from the taste buds on the tongue, runs through the middle ear. While previous studies have shown that, in general, damage to the middle ear can cause taste perception distortion, Yan and Rando’s study looked at changes in taste perception for each of the five basic tastes in the presence of noise in a controlled environment, by isolating each basic taste, and showed that each taste is affected differently (or not at all!) Although the study only looked at tastes delivered through isolated solutions, rather than through complex foods, the researchers speculate that the results could be used to allow airlines to improve the taste of airline food – a small step for science, but a giant leap for mankind.

My First Post!


This blog is part of a science writing course I am taking at UC Berkeley.

A little about me – I have a background as a research scientist – I received my Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, and did research in neural prosthetics (cochlear implants and brain-machine interfaces).  4 years ago, I left the lab, and began a career in patent law.

In the past few years, I’ve become interested in science communication, as it became apparent to me that, on many topics, there is often a large gap between scientific knowledge and what the general public knows.  After getting sucked into a flame war on a “mommy-group” listserv on the benefits of vaccines, I realized I needed to up my game on explaining complicated scientific ideas, as I was neither clear nor compelling.  Finding out about the UCB Science Writing course felt like a perfect opportunity!

Some topics I’m interested in: neuroscience (old habits die hard!), linguistics and language acquisition in children, sensory perception, and food science.