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Understanding word learning in the growing brain

April 15, 2019

Toddler wearing the Brite fNIRS. Photo credit: Artinis

Story by the Department of Psychology

Dr. Maria Arredondo and Dr. Drew Weatherhead, postdoctoral researchers in the department of psychology at UBC and Language Sciences members, recently won the Artinis Win-A-Brite Contest for their pilot study proposal, What’s in a word? Imaging the birth of a word using fNIRS.

Toddlers are notoriously poor at sitting still and now, with the Artinis Brite Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) device, the researchers will get a glimpse in the brains of toddlers as they learn words.

Arredondo and Weatherhead work with Dr. Janet Werker in the Infant Studies Centre. Werker explores the foundations of language learning, including multi-language acquisition in infancy. Werker, co-investigator of the pilot research project, is interested in expanding her fNIRS work from infants to toddlers.

The study could advance our understanding of the behavioural and neural mechanisms supporting word acquisition and bilingualism in children.

Dr. Janet Werker, Professor, UBC Psychology

“This pilot study is an exciting step,” says Werker, University Killam Professor, Canada Research Chair, Psychology, and Language Sciences co-director. “We don’t know how the rapidly developing brain in young children is supporting word learning. The study could advance our understanding of the behavioural and neural mechanisms supporting word acquisition and bilingualism in children.”

fNIRS is an optical neuroimaging technique that provides a non-invasive measure of brain function—and the Brite is the world’s first wireless fNIRS portable device designed especially with young children in mind. Arredondo and Weatherhead plan to use it on toddlers to image the birth of a word in the pilot study, beginning in April 2019.

Most children at this age experience a “word spurt” that leads to large increases in their spoken vocabulary. As they get older and their vocabulary increases, their rate of learning new words also increases.

There is very little research on how toddlers acquire new words during this vocabulary spurt—and how the brain accommodates it. Most toddlers are unable to sit still. With the Brite, the toddlers can explore their environment while allowing us to collect brain responses.

Dr. Maria Arredondo, National Science Foundation & Killam Postdoctoral Fellow

Arredondo says there is a discrepancy in psychology and neuroimaging research showing whether toddlers are mapping and retaining new words. This first pilot study will help establish a link between behavioural and neural responses during word learning.

“The brain shows you something behaviour doesn’t allow you to see clearly,” says Arredondo, who researches how bilingual infants and children learn their languages. “We want to see what the brain looks like when kids successfully acquire a new word, versus those that may struggle. They may be learning a new word, but their behaviour may not be showing it.”

For Weatherhead, this pilot study is an exciting collaboration—and a chance to expand her research into the field of neuroscience. Her research focuses on how a speaker’s social characteristics, such as race and culture, influence speech processing in infants and toddlers.

Her previous research found that infants interpreted the same words differently depending on whether the speaker was from a racial group that was familiar or unfamiliar to them.

The study will allow me to understand how children process unfamiliar words. And as time goes on, we could use this technology to study accented speech to see if children are processing accented pronunciations as familiar words—or if they think they are brand new words entirely.

Dr. Drew Weatherhead, SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow

“Using neuroimaging opens new research questions for me,” says Weatherhead. “There is a lot of variation in the way we say words. Behavioural methods can only tell us how infants interpret words, not how they are initially processing them.”

“This research will be a game changer. It allows us to expand the field of word learning and word reference in this age group,” says Weatherhead. “I never thought I’d be able to do this research because at this age, children don’t like to sit still.”

Read more here.

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