For Parents

For Parents

Beep beep!

Do infants need to use language to learn, or does it just need to be communication?

As children grow up and they grow in their cognitive abilities, those abilities become very closely associated with language – much of the information we learn with comes from other people. By adulthood, we can gather information from many different sources, but at 6 months old, human language seems like it has a monopoly on teaching. In a recently-published paper in Cognition, however, Brock Ferguson and Sandy Waxman asked if that’s really the case. Do infants need to use language to learn, or does it just need to be communication?

Language and communication

While we as adults use language to do the majority of our communicating, there are many ways to communicate that don’t use language. We use facial expressions and manual gestures all the time, but we can also use things like smoke signals and flashing lights to get a message to another person. By around 8-9 months, babies are able to infer that gestures and eye gaze can convey meaning, and may be able to use them to support learning. But at 6 months, they have only really shown the ability to learn about objects from human speech. How is it that children go from this very constrained ability to what we do as adults? Ferguson and Waxman supposed that it could be, in fact, communication, rather than speech or language that encourages infants to gather information and learn. If this is true, then babies only need to be able to infer that something is being used to communicate in order to learn from it.

To test this, they showed a group of 6-month-olds one of two different videos: one in which two women have a conversation, but one of the women speaks by beeping (electronic beeps are being used communicatively) and another in which the same two women stir some liquid while the audio from the first video plays (the beeps are not communicative). Later, they had a task in which children could potentially use similar electronic beeps as clues to form categories of objects, but only the infants who watched the communicative video were able to successfully do so.

So what’s the point?

These findings show the beginnings of our ability to find meaning in nonspeech signals – anything from smoke signals to R2-D2’s chirps and boops. This flexibility serves us well, as humans often need to find new ways to communicate with one another. Importantly, it reinforces that communication, despite the many forms it comes in, is something that babies are able to recognize and then learn from. While most languages are spoken, many are signed, with information encoded by hand instead of vocally. If children can infer communication from pure tones in a short vignette, learning from signs won’t be a problem for them, even from a very young age. Additionally, in many language & communication therapies, modes of communication that involve the use Alternative and Augmented Communication (AAC) are used, and this study gives us evidence that the goal, communication, is more important to supporting learning than the form that the communication takes, all of which is very good news for children (and their families) who can’t use speech or canonical language.


“Beep beep beep beep”

– R2-D2, Star Wars