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The fundamental question in development is how a child comes to understand reality so as to be able to deal effectively in a world of persons, objects, and events. Language is a part of that reality, and this chapter is about the developing cognitive abilities in infancy that bring the infant to the threshold of language at the end of the first year. The emphasis here is on how an infant comes to know about the physical world – a world of objects. How infants learn about persons and a world of social connectedness will be taken up when we turn to development of the expressive infant, in Chapter 4.
Over the years, two important influences on my thinking about cognitive development in infancy have been Jean Piaget and J. J. Gibson. I am aware that their respective theories are not often juxtaposed in this way; in fact, the followers of each have more often used the other's theory as a starting point of disagreement. For example,
Piaget has taught many psychologists to think of the development of the constancies [e.g., size, shape, color] as a process of intellectual construction [italics added]. … [But] since stimulation occurs over time, as well as over space, and has temporal as well as spatial structure, invariants are present in the stimulus transformations over time … [and] it is pickup of these invariants that permits perception [italics added] of the permanent properties of things.
In this important volume, Lois Bloom brings together the theoretical and empirical work she has carried out on early lexical development. Its focus is on the expressive power children acquire as they begin to talk and, in particular, on contributions from cognitive development, affect expression, and the social context for making the transition from prelinguistic expression to the expression of contents of mind. The first half of the book reviews the developments in infancy that enable the emergence of language and presents the theoretical perspective required for an understanding of the longitudinal study described in the second half. The book's main thesis is that language is acquired for expressing contents of mind and that its usefulness as a 'tool' is of only secondary importance. The Transition from Infancy to Language makes a major contribution to our knowledge of early lexical development, providing a persuasive theoretical model for researchers and students.
Infants start out with certain broad capacities for speech, and learning to say words depends on maturation of these capacities: both maturation of the anatomy for speech and maturation of the sensorimotor connections between audition and production systems. Learning to say words also depends on hearing other persons say words; a child has to hear their sounds and appreciate how the sounds that are heard relate to sounds the child can say. Infants begin to take account of the speech they hear and to bend their own capacities for soundmaking to accommodate the sounds of speech in the first half year of life. Before the first words appear, the influence of hearing such different languages as French, English, Japanese, and Swedish is already evident in differences in the sounds of babbling. But maturation and phonetic input determine which words are learned and how they are learned only in a social and informational context. It is the personal and interpersonal context that determines which words are learned in the second year.
A critically important question for studies of the emergence of language is What is a word? Deciding that what a child says qualifies as a word depends on judgments about the sounds emitted in the effort and their relevance to what is going on in the context. The criteria we used to judge that a word was a word were intuitive and similar to those used in other studies: relatively consistent phonetic shape and meaningfulness.
In the first few hours of life, a human infant can tell the difference between its own mother's voice and a strange female voice. An infant as young as 1 month old can hear the difference between categories of speech sounds, such as the difference between /p/ and /b/. And from the moment of birth, infants display affect signals that their caregivers interpret as meaningful. We know, then, that certain basic capacities serving communication and language are already in place at the beginning of life. By the time language begins, in the second year, and the rudiments of speech sounds have only just begun to appear, the development of affect expression is well under way. Smiles, giggles, laughs, frowns, whines, and cries appear effortless and automatic at a time when emerging words are fragile, tentative, and inconsistent. The purpose of this chapter is to show how developments in expression and the social life of infants in the first year of life bring an infant to this threshold of language.
Two aspects of expression in infancy are particularly relevant for understanding the transition to language. The first is the nature of the expression itself: what it looks like, what it sounds like, and what it means. The second is the development of the infant as a profoundly social being, virtually from the beginning of life.
This chapter begins by showing how we defined the two expressive behaviors we observed, affect and words, with the coding categories for affect expression and the criteria for achievements in word learning we used. The frequencies of words and emotional expressions at the beginning and end of the period are the first result reported here to show that emotional expression does not decrease as words are acquired. Following this is a description of certain aspects of the mental meanings attributed to the intentional states underlying the children's emotional expression and words.
AFFECT AND WORDS IN THE SINGLE-WORD PERIOD
Expressions of affect carry both categorical and gradient information. Categorical information is the discrete emotion that is expressed, such as anger, fear, joy, or sadness. Gradient properties include qualitative descriptive features of an expression, such as its intensity and valence. Intensity is the relative fullness of a display and can vary from a barely perceptible frown to a raging cry, or from the slightest of smiles to hysterical laughter. Valence is the hedonic tone or value of an expression, such as a positive tone in joy and pleasure and a negative tone in sadness, anger, and fear. Neutral affect is the presence of hedonic tone without either positive or negative valence. Neutral affect is not a lack of affect, because affect is always present. And it is not to be confused with the so-called flat affect sometimes seen in certain instances of pathology.
The present-day cognitivist perspective in psychology was born with Miller, Galanter, and Pribram's now classic response to behaviorism: Plans and the Structure of Behavior. The problem addressed in that book was the task of describing “how actions are controlled by an organism's internal representation of its universe” such that “cognitive representation” is mapped into “the appropriate pattern of activity.” Two aspects of cognitive representation were invoked: a mental plan for acting and the individual's knowledge base. In short, what determines how we act is what we know and the plans we construct for making use of what we know.
Acts of expression and interpretation require plans, just like other acts that we do. These plans include the representations in intentional states that “we set up as we talk or listen and that we structure with elements, roles, strategies, and relations.” Such representations are set up in the part of the mind traditionally called working memory or consciousness. They are the mental meanings that individuals express when they talk and that they construct when they interpret the speech of others. And they are the representations that give rise to feelings of emotion and their expression. The purpose of this chapter is to draw attention to these representations and to the developments that contribute to them so as to emphasize their importance for acquiring language.
We have been concerned so far with developments in affect expression and saying words. In this chapter, we turn to how the children played with the toys in the playroom as a window on developments in cognition. We will see in particular how developments in object play, saying words, and emotional expression were integrated – both in the children's development over the course of the year and a half in which we studied them and in the moment-to-moment events in the stream of spontaneous activity in which we observed them.
Karin Lifter and I used several sorts of data from the children's play for comparison with developments in language. The primary data came from play in which a child did something with two objects in relation to each other. The child either took two objects apart – for example, taking a bead off the string – or constructed a thematic relation between objects – like putting a doll in the truck. The categories of play activity derived from these data, and the sequence of their emergence and achievement are the central results of the study.
Secondary data were also collected to provide a developmental context for these results and to help us understand them. One source of secondary data was the children's spontaneous finding behavior: how they located objects in the playroom to use for constructing relationships between them.
Certainly by 9 months of age, infants appreciate what is happening around them, and these appreciations influence affective expression. Both valence (whether they smile or frown, laugh or cry) and intensity (whether they smile or laugh, frown or cry) depend upon how they evaluate what is going on around them in relation to what they have in mind. We may disagree about the kind of thinking that contributes to these appraisals for the experience and expression of emotion. But no one believes that the 9-month-old's emotional expressions are mindless, least of all the infant's caregivers who care about and respond to expressions of emotion as communicative events. At the same time, 9-month-old infants are beginning to pay attention to words they hear and to think about the connections between those words and what they feel and see and do. We have asked how the cognition for attending to words, learning new words, and saying words is related to the cognition needed for the experience and expression of emotion, and how the responses of a caregiver to a child's emotional expressions provide information about the causes and circumstances of emotional experience.
We have already seen, in Chapter 7, that the frequency of emotional expression and certain aspects of the mental meanings we attributed to the children's emotional expressions did not change between the two language achievements FW and VS for the group of infants as a whole.
First words have been the subject of serious attention for more than 200 years, ever since a few scientists and other parents began to keep diaries of their babies' words in the 18th century. We still study the classic diaries; researcher-parents continue to keep diaries; and researchers even train parents in how to keep diaries so they may study the early words of larger numbers of children. More objective observations of infants under controlled conditions also yield information about how children acquire a vocabulary of words in their second year. And now diary and observational studies are supplemented by experimental studies in which researchers teach words to 1- and 2-year-olds.
Two hundred years later, what do we know about First Words and the development of early vocabularies? Certain landmarks in the literature can point the way in answering that question. The summary chapters by Dorothea McCarthy in 1946 and 1954 are a good place to start. They provide a wealth of material from studies that had accumulated at each time. The study Infant Speech published by M. M. Lewis in 1936 is a source of many theoretical and empirical observations of early language that continue to reverberate in research today. The diary study that stands out for both the breadth of its coverage and the depth of its insights is in the four volumes published by Werner Leopold between 1939 and 1949.
Meanings are in persons' minds, not in words, and when we say that a word has or possesses such and such meanings, we are really saying that it has evoked, or caused, those meanings. Until it gets into a mind, a word is only puffs of air or streaks of ink.
(Edward Lee Thorndike)
This book has been about how words get into minds. Acquiring the power of expression comes with learning the public, conventional meanings of a language for expressing and articulating the private, personal meanings in a mind. One-year-olds have been hearing words for some time, but words come to have meaning only when infants can appreciate the connections between what they hear (or the gestures they see) and what they are thinking and feeling. And because words express what a child's beliefs, desires, and feelings are about, they are only part of what happens in early language development. We tapped into some of what happens with early word learning when we looked at how the children played with objects and expressed emotion as they and their mothers spent an hour together each month in our playroom.
Let's go back to the simple example from an earlier chapter:
A child picks up a small block, says “more,” puts it on top of another block, smiles, and looks at her mother. Her mother smiles back.
This book was actually begun with the publication of the monograph One Word at a Time in 1973. The description of the single-word period in that monograph contained several observations of my daughter Allison's development that departed from traditional accounts in the literature at the time. Since then, the theoretical issues raised by these observations have continued to endure. The case study in One Word at a Time was motivated by two issues in particular. The first was that words in the single-word period have a conceptual basis, not a syntactic basis. Nothing I have read or observed since then has changed my strong conviction that the major developments in this period are conceptual rather than linguistic. The second theoretical issue was the nature of the developments in cognition that contribute to conceptual development, word learning, and the eventual emergence of syntax, at the end of the period. Many studies have since attempted to test the hypotheses I suggested, and the results of these studies have been mixed and at times controversial. One thing, however, is now clear: The second year of life is a time of major cognitive developments that contribute to learning words and the emergence of language.
The emphasis on cognitive development for early word learning in One Word at a Time was one of two factors that led to the chain of events that has culminated in this book.