Thursday, August 28, 2014

More on the nature of first words

About two weeks ago, M – now 13 months old – started using "dada" to refer to me. She has been producing "da" and "dada" as part of her babble for quite a while, but this was touching and new. It's a wonderful moment when your daughter first calls to you using language, not just a wordless cry.

Of course, congruent with what happened with "brown bear," I haven't heard much "dada" in about a week. She still seems to understand it (and likely did before producing it), but the production really seems to come and go with these first words. Now she's big into balls and appears to produce the sequence "BA(l)" pretty consistently while pointing to them. (I'm writing "BA(l)" because there's a hint of a liquid at the end, in contrast to the punctate "ba" that she uses for dogs and birds that we see at the park).

I want to comment on something neat that happened, though. In the very first day of M's "dada" production, we saw two really interesting novel uses of the word, both supporting my previous discussion about the flexibility of early language.

The first use was during a game we often play with M where she unpacks and repacks all the cards in my wallet. A couple of years ago, I lost my credit cards several times, and the bank started putting my photo on my card. (I think they do this for folks who are at high risk for identity theft). During the wallet-unpacking game, M took one of the cards, pointed to the photo of me (a small, blurry, old photo at that), and said "dada."

Kids do understand and recognize photos and other depictions early in life. My favorite piece of evidence for children's picture understanding is a beautiful old study by Hochbert & Brooks (1962). They found that their own child, after being deprived of access to drawings and photos until the age of 19 months, nevertheless had very good recognition objects he knew from both kinds of images, the very first time he saw them.* M's generalization of "dada" to my photo thus might not be completely surprising, but it certainly supports the idea that the word was never dependent on me actually being there.

The second example, reported by my wife, is even more striking.  When I had stepped out of the house for a moment, M pointed to the bedroom door where I had been and said "dada" – as though she was searching for me. This kind of displacement – use of language to describe something that is absent  – is argued to be a critical design feature of language in a really nice, under-appreciated article by Hockett (1960). Some interesting experiments suggest that even toddlers can use language to learn about unseen events, but I don't know about systematic studies of the use of early words to express displaced meanings. M's use of "dada" to refer to my absence (or perhaps to question whether I was present but unseen) suggests that she already is able – in principle – to use language in this way.

More broadly, in watching these first steps into language I am stunned by the disconnect between comprehension and production. Production is difficult and laborious: M accomplishes something like "brown bear" or "dada" but then quickly forgets or loses interest in what she has learned.** But the core understanding of how language works seems much more mature than I ever would have imagined. For M, the places where she shows the most ability is in understanding language a signal of future action. When we say "diaper time" or "would you like something to eat?" she apparently takes these as signals to initiate the routine, and toddles over to the changing pad or dinner table. But when we're in the middle of the routine, saying "diaper" doesn't inspire her to point to her diaper.

Again and again I am left with the impression of a mind that quickly apprehends the basic framework assumptions of the physical and social world, even as carrying out the simplest actions using that knowledge remains extraordinarily difficult.


* Needless to say, this was an epic study to conduct. Drily, H&B write in their paper that “the constant vigilance and improvisation required of the parents proved to be a considerable chore from the start—further research of this kind should not be undertaken lightly.”

** On a behaviorist account of early language, M would never forget "dada" – I was so overjoyed that I probably offered more positive reinforcement than she could even appreciate.

(minor updates and typo fixes 7/29)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Exploring first words across children

(This post is joint with Rose Schneider, lab manager in the Language and Cognition Lab.)

For toddlers, the ability to communicate using words is an incredibly important part of learning to make their way in the world. A friend's mother tells a story that probably resonates with a lot of parents. After getting more and more frustrated trying to figure out why her son was insistently pointing at the pantry, she almost cried when he looked straight at her and said, “cookie!” She was so grateful for the clear communication that she gave him as many cookies as he wanted.

We're interested in early word learning as a way to look into the emergence of language more broadly. What does it take to learn a word? And why is there so much variability in the emergence of children's language, given that nearly all kids end up with typical language skills later in childhood?

One way into these questions is to ask about the content of children's first words. Several studies have looked at early vocabulary (e.g. this nice one that compares across cultures), but – to our knowledge – there is not a lot of systematic data on children's absolute first word.* The first word is both a milestone for parents and caregivers and also an interesting window into the things that very young children want to (and are able to) talk about.

To take a look at this issue, we partnered with Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose to do a retrospective survey of children's first word. We're very pleased that they were interested in supporting this kind of developmental research and were willing to send our survey out to their members! In the survey, we were especially interested in content words, rather than names for people, so for this study, we omitted "mama" and "dada" and their equivalents. (There are lots of reasons why parents might want these particular words to get produced – and to spot them in babble even when they aren't being used meaningfully).

We put together a very short online questionnaire and asked about the child's first word, the situation it occurred in, the age of the child, the age of the utterance, and the child's current age and gender. The survey generated around 500 responses, and we preprocessed the data by translating words into English (when we had a translation available) and categorizing the words by the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory (CDI) classification, a common way to group children's vocabulary into basic categories. We did our data analysis in R using ggplot2, reshape2, and ddply.

Here's the graphic we produced for CDM:

We were struck by a couple of features of the data, and the goal of this post is to talk a bit more about these, as well as some of other things that didn't fit in the graphic.

First, the distribution of words seemed pretty reasonable, with short, common words for objects ("ball," "car"), animals ("dog," "duck" – presumably from bathtime), and social routines ("hi"). The gender difference between "ball" and "hi" was also striking, reflecting some gender stereotypes – and some data – about girls' greater social orientation in infancy. Of course, we can't say anything about the source of such differences from these data!

Another interesting feature of the data was the age distribution we observed. On parent report forms like the CDI, parents often report that their children understand many words even in infancy, with the 75th percentile being reported to know 50 words at 8 months. While there is some empirical evidence for word knowledge before the first birthday, this 50 word number has always been surprising, and no one really knows how much wishful thinking it includes. The production numbers for the CDI are much lower, but still have a median value above zero for 10-month-olds. So is this overestimation? Probably depends on your standards. M, Mike's daughter, had something "word-like" at 10 months, but is only now producing "hi" as a 12-month-old (typical girl).

One possible confound in this reporting would be parents misremembering the age at which their child first produced a word, perhaps reporting systematically younger or older ages (or even ages rounded more towards the first birthday) as the first word recedes into the past. We didn't find evidence of this, however. The distribution of reported age of first word was the same regardless of how old the child was at the time of reporting:

Now on to some substantive analyses that didn't make it into the graphic. Grouping our responses into broad categories is a good way to explore what classes of objects, actions, etc., were the referents of first words. While many of the words we observed in parents’ responses were on the CDI, we had to classify some others ad-hoc, and still others we were unable to classify (we ended up excluding about 50 for a total sample of 454, 42% female). Here's a graph of the proportions in each category:
So no individual animal name dominated, but overall they were most frequent, followed by "games and routines" (including social routines like "hi" and "bye") and toys. People were next, followed by animal sounds.

There are some interesting ways to break this down further. Note that girls generally are a few months ahead, language-wise, so analyses of age and gender are a bit confounded. Here's our age distribution broken down by gender:
As expected, we see girls a bit over-represented in the youngest age bin and boys a little bit over-represented in the oldest bin.

That said, here are the splits by age:
and gender:
Overall, younger kids are similar to older kids, but are producing more names for people. Older kids were producing slightly more vehicle names and sounds, but this may be because the older kids skew more male (see gender graph, where vehicles are almost exclusively the provenance of male babies). The only big gender trends were 1) a preference for toys and action words for the males and 2) a general broader spread across different categories. This second trend could be a function of boys' tendency to have more idiosyncratic interests (in childhood at least, perhaps beyond).

Overall, these data give us a new way to look at early vocabulary, not at the shape of semantic networks within a single child, but at the variability of first words across a large population. We invite you to look at the data if you are interested! 

Thanks very much to Jenni Martin at CDM for her support of our research!

* What does that even mean? Is a word a word if no one understands or recognizes it? That seems pretty philosophically deep, but hard to assess empirically. We'll go with the first word that someone else, usually a parent, recognized as being part of communicating (or trying to communicate). 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Getting latex to work at journals

I got good news about a manuscript being accepted today, but I was reminded again how painful it can be to get journals to accept LaTeX source. Sometimes I wonder if I waste as much time in wrangling journals as I save in writing by using tex and bibtex.

I routinely have manuscripts bounced back by editorial assistants who ask "Why can't I edit your PDF? Can you send me the word source?" Hopefully policies like Elsevier's Your Paper Your Way and the PNAS equivalent, "express submission," will promote a new norm for first submissions.

For my own memory as much as anyone else, here are some tips for getting Elsevier's maddening EES to accept tex source:

  • Uploading an archive with all files never has worked for me, so I skip this step
  • Use elsarticle.cls and the included model5-names.bst for formatting and APA-style references
  • Upload both .bib AND .bbl files as supplementary information (this was the tricky one!) – why would this be necessary?
  • Upload all figures separately; PDF format has worked for me though EPS is requested.
Also, if you have uploaded a version of a file and then want to replace it, be careful to rename it. EES keeps the oldest version of a file so it will not update if you upload a newer version (totally idiotic).