The effect of words and sounds on conceptual representations for preverbal infants.

Sirri, L., Reid, V., Parise, E. (2018). The effect of words and sounds on conceptual representations for preverbal infants. Poster presented at the 21st biennial meeting of the International Conference of Infant Studies, Philadelphia, USA. 


Lupyan and Thompson-Schill (2012) have shown that adults recognize faster a target image (e.g., cat) when it is preceded by a verbal cue, such as a spoken word, compared to when it is preceded by non-verbal sound (e.g., meowing), indicating that in adults, concepts are activated more effectively via verbal means compared to non-verbal means. Recent studies have shown that infants possess a small receptive vocabulary (Bergelson & Swingley, 2012; Parise & Csibra, 2012), but whether words activate conceptual representations in infants remains unclear. The present study aimed to replicate the adult findings and extend it to young infants. Fourty-four 9- (20 girls; mean age: 9 months) and 38 (21 girls; mean age: 12 months) 12-month-old infants participated in a primed intermodal preferential (IPL) task in which they listened to either a word (e.g., cow) or sound (e.g., mooing) followed by an image on the eye tracker screen and illustrating two objects (e.g., cow - telephone), a target and a distracter. In addition, 31 adults (21 females; mean age: 28y and 84d) completed a visual identification task during which we recorded reaction times for matching and mistmatching target images primed by either a word or an associated sound. We successfully replicated Lupyan and Thompson-Schill (2012) adult findings showing faster reaction times to the target image when primed by matching than mismatching word or sound (F(1,29)=65.95; p=.00) with shorter reaction times in the word (575 ms) compared to the sound (590 ms) condition. Upon hearing the auditory cue, both groups of infants (n=22 9-month-olds and n=20 12-month-olds) did not shift faster their gaze to the target image compared to the distractor (F(1,22)=3.67; p=.07; F(1,19)=0.04, p=.85, respectively), neither in the word nor in the sound condition. Looking times (n=29 9-month-olds and n=29 12-month-olds) to the target image compared to the distractor (F(1,28)=4.65, p=.04; F(1,28)=13.64, p=.00), however, were longer in both the word and sound conditions, demonstrating a congruency priming effect. Older infants, in general, looked longer at the target image compared to the younger group (1303 ms versus 1185 ms). Our preliminary findings do not support the hypothesis that words activate conceptual representation more efficiently compared to non-verbal sounds in infants. Our paradigm, however, was highly demanding for infants in terms of attentional resources. At present, we are testing another group of 12-month-old infants and adults with a modified version of this experimental design.