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NSF grant awarded to Nancy Rader for Infant Language Research

How do infants first discover what segment of a stream of speech names an object, movement, or attribute? Imagine the problem being similar to the one you would face in a foreign country hearing an unfamiliar language for the first time. Not only would you not know the meaning of each word, you most likely would not be able to identify where a word begins and ends.

The National Science Foundation's division of Behavioral and Cognitive Science has awarded Nancy Rader, Associate Professor of Psychology, $135,300 to carry out research designed to answer this question. Specifically, Rader and her students will be looking at the role that caregiver gestures play in helping the infant to link sound and referent. Working with infants 9-14 months old, they will carry out a set of four studies that examine how early word learning is influenced by the dynamic nature of the gesture and its timing. While infants view carefully constructed digital video scenarios, their looking behavior and heart rate will be measured.

The studies are based on a perceptual theory developed by Rader's former graduate student at UCLA, Patricia Zukow-Goldring. Dr. Zukow-Goldring, now in the Linguistics Department at the University of Southern California, has also received NSF funding to study infants in Los Angeles whose families speak Spanish. Rader and Zukow-Goldring will coordinate their research, with each visiting the other site to ensure comparability.

The planned set of studies is based on preliminary research carried out by Theresa Cain '99 as an honors project in Psychology. A paper by Zukow-Goldring, Rader, and Cain was presented at an International Conference on Infant Studies in Brighton, England in July, 2000, presented the theoretical foundation and described the results of Cain's project. Recently, Zukow-Goldring and Rader published a commentary on their theory of early language acquisition in the British journal, Developmental Science.

In addition to providing for other expenses, the NSF grant will fund four undergraduate interns each year, two during the academic year and two during the summer. The student interns will assist with many aspects of the project, including creating videotaped scenarios for the infants to view and working with the infants who come to the Cognition Laboratory in Williams Hall to be participants in the studies.

To carry out the research at Ithaca College, Dr. Rader is seeking 40 infants from English-speaking families with varied educational backgrounds. She encourages anyone with an infant who would like to participate, or who would like more information, to call her at 274-3510.

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