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October 2002

Release Date: October 17, 2002

ASU Researcher to Examine How Toddlers Learn Meanings of Words

Dr. James N. Forbes, an assistant professor of psychology at Angelo State University, has received a two-year, $116,915 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how toddlers learn the meaning of new words.

The funding came from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and is the first National Institutes of Health grant for Angelo State University. Forbes' research will be used to gain knowledge about young children's language acquisition. Such knowledge can help understand and treat language/communication impairments in children.

Forbes' research will try to identify if or how toddlers use verbal and non-verbal behavioral cues about a person's intentions to infer the meaning of new words, specifically verbs. The study will examine 64 children equally divided between those at the age of 21 months and those at the age of 28 months. Children will be recruited through area day care centers.

Participating children will be accompanied by their parents for three 30-minute sessions. During each visit, the researchers will demonstrate two "novel" verbs to the children while providing varying levels of verbal and non-verbal clues about the words' meanings. At the end of each visit, children will be asked to say and demonstrate the meanings of the new words. Researchers will tape the children's responses and then compare their success in comprehending the words across different word-learning situations.

For instance, the researchers might demonstrate key differences between a pair of novel words such as "conceal" and "obscure." To demonstrate "conceal," researchers might place a ball beneath an opaque bowl to hide or conceal it from a puppet. To illustrate "obscure," researchers would place the same ball beneath a translucent bowl to obscure it from the puppet.

"In short," said Forbes, "we will use a variety of contextual and linguistic cues to determine when toddlers' word learning is aided by their ability to interpret other people's semantic intentions."y

Forbes' goal is to provide information that can ultimately be used to design treatments for children whose normal language acquisition skills may be impaired by the lack of knowledge necessary to understand other people's verbal and non-verbal clues to word meaning.

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