Designing a Method that Tests Two-Year-Olds’ Interpretation of the Lexical Relevance of Speech-Sound Distinctions

Jasmine is holding plush toy.

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Project Summary

I have always enjoyed my experiences interacting with children in volunteer settings, and so during my senior year, I decided to expand my interest in working with this age group to a context I had not yet explored: research. For my year-long independent project, I studied the language development of toddlers and witnessed firsthand the concepts I had learned in my developmental psychology and linguistics classes intersect. Specifically, I worked towards developing a method to test which speech sounds matter enough to toddlers to give a word new meaning.

Following from findings that toddlers are able to detect slight speech sound distinctions (e.g. the sound difference between “fine” and “vine”), I investigated whether this audible perception translated to the understanding that certain minimal sound contrasts imply lexical relevance. A previous study suggested that toddlers may perceive slightly novel words (e.g. “vish) as bad pronunciations of a familiar word (e.g. “fish”) when they are visually primed with an object referring to its familiar-pronunciation counterpart (e.g. a fish). In the touchscreen study I conducted which involved implementing a two-door box apparatus, I tried to eliminate the previous bias introduced by the situation of toddlers seeing a familiar object in front of them. However, I found that my design introduced a new bias of toddlers only choosing objects they can see. Following from this result, I am in the process of testing an interactive, modified version of the study that may allow toddlers to behave in a way that appropriately reflects their intuitions about sound meanings. I will conduct the whole experiment live and introduce a cute stuffed animal named Numpy who needs the toddlers’ help to get the toys she asks for (because Numpy has no arms). Though my new design will require further testing beyond my time at the lab, I have high hopes that the new design will help us get one step closer to the goal of investigating whether toddlers know how to apply their detection of minimal sound contrasts to their comprehension of word referents.

I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to conduct my very first independent research with the help from the people at the Infant Language Center and with funding provided by the College Alumni Society. I have exercised my ability to think innovatively throughout various aspects of the research process and learned to accept that things might not always go as expected (and that’s okay!). Through this hands-on experience, I reached my goal of understanding the considerations and challenges involved when working with young children in a research setting.