Babies Depend on Language to Decode Actions of Others, Study Says

By Julie Rasicot — November 19, 2012 1 min read
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Remember that old expression, “monkey see, monkey do?” Well, when it comes to babies, Northwestern University researchers say they have learned it’s “monkey see, monkey hear, and then monkey do.”

That was the result of a study to determine “the power of language in infants’ ability to understand the intentions of others,” according to a university news release. The study, “Shall We Blick?": Novel Words Highlight Actors’ Underlying Intentions for 14-Month-Old Infants,” was published in Developmental Psychology in July.

To find out what role language played in babies’ understanding, researchers took the interesting approach of showing a group of 14-month-old babies an unusual behavior: One researcher used her forehead to turn on a light. In that experiment, researchers then let the babies play with the light to see how they viewed the odd behavior.

In a second experiment, one researcher announced what she was going to do with a novel phrase—"I’m going to blick the light"—as she used her forehead to turn on the light.

The results? The babies imitated that researcher’s behavior once she named it; but did not do so when she did not name her actions, according to the university.

The researchers found that “by 14 months, infants gain insight into the intentions of others by considering not only what we do but also what we say,” the study said.

“This work shows, for the first time, that even for infants who have only just begun to ‘crack the language code,’ language promotes culturally shared knowledge and actions—naturally, generatively and apparently effortlessly,” study co-author and psychology professor Sandra R. Waxman said. “This is the first demonstration of how infants’ keen observational skills, when augmented by human language, heighten their acuity for ‘reading’ the underlying intentions of their ‘tutors’ (adults) and foster infants’ imitation of adults’ actions.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.