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academics & research

IU Scientists use “I Spy” to show the importance of language for children

A thousand words may be worth more than a picture after all, a new study by two IU cognitive scientists suggests.

Catarina Vales and Linda Smith led the study that used a series of “I spy” games to determine how language shapes children’s minds, according to an April 17 IU press release.

Published last week in the journal, Developmental Science, the study could open new avenues of research into the way language might shape the course of developmental disabilities like ADHD, according to the release.

“I spy” games are often used in scientific experiments to study both attention and memory in adults, according to the release. In this experiment, children were asked to look for a particular image among multiple pictures on a computer.

For example, a child may have been asked to find a bed amongst a group of couches.

“If the name of the target object was also said, the children were much faster at finding it and less distracted by the other objects in the scene,” said Vales, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, in the release.

What the study suggested was language, more than images, is transformative. The spoken word taps into children’s cognitive system and increases their ability to learn and to navigate disorderly environments, according to the release.

“What we’ve shown is that in 3-year-old children, words activate memories that then rapidly deploy attention and lead children to find the relevant object in a cluttered array,” said Smith, distinguished professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

“Words call up an idea that is more robust than an image and to which we more rapidly respond. Words have a way of calling up what you know that filters the environment for you.”

In the release, Smith said the study is the first clear evidence of the power of language on how children navigate the visual world. It is also the first step toward understanding the way language affects visual attention, opening up a new hypothesis about the process.

Language can transform how people scrutinize the world around them, Vales said in the release.

“We also know that language will change the way people perform in a lot of different laboratory tasks,” Vales said. “And if you have a child with ADHD who has a hard time focusing, one of the things parents are told to do is to use words to walk the child through what she needs to do. So there is this notion that words change cognition. The question is ‘how?’”

Vales also said their research results show how words assist cognitive processes that affect behavior.

“For instance, the difference between search times, with and without naming the target object, indicate a key role for a kind of brief visual memory known as working memory, that helps us remember what we just saw as we look to something new,” Vales said. “Words put ideas in working memory faster than images.”

Because of this, language may be a key factor in a number of developmental disabilities, according to the release.

“Limitations in working memory have been implicated in almost every developmental disability, especially those concerned with language, reading and negative outcomes in school,” Smith said in the release. “These results also suggest the culprit for these difficulties may be language in addition to working memory.”

Smith said this study suggests language might also make working memory, or short-term memory, more effective.

“Children learn in the real world, and the real world is a cluttered place,” Smith said. “If you don’t know where to look, chances are you don’t learn anything. The words you know are a driving force behind attention.

“People have not thought about it as important or pervasive, but once children acquire language, it changes everything about their cognitive system.”

A copy of the paper titled, “Words, shape, visual search and visual working memory in 3-year-old children” is available online.

“People have thought that children have difficulty with language because they don’t have enough working memory to learn language,” Smith said.
“This turns it around because it suggests that language may also make working memory more effective.”

Kathrine Schulze

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