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July 27, 2004

Babies Teach Scientists a Little Bit About Thinking

In an infant's knowing eyes scientists believe they have resolved one of the oldest debates in science and philosophy: which comes first, an idea or the language to express it?

Researchers at Vanderbilt and Harvard universities demonstrated through experiments made public last week in the magazine Nature that children do appear to think before they learn to speak. Moreover, infants seem to share fundamental ideas about the world around them that languages later alter. To determine if thought precedes the acquisition of language, two psychologists, Susan Hespos and Elizabeth Spelke, took advantage of a subtle contrast in the Korean and English languages.

In a series of tests, five-month-old infants were shown things nested within each other in categories corresponding to whether the objects fitted together tightly or loosely - a distinction important in the Korean language but absent from English. The researchers monitored how long each infant's gaze lingered, as a way of measuring whether the child noticed any difference. The babies could perceive those distinctions that, through the limitations of language, their English-speaking parents had learnt to ignore. "The babies were voting with their eyes," Professor Hespos said. "Adults were glossing over the distinction that the babies were actually detecting."

The research shows that there appears to be a universal core of meaningful distinctions that all humans share, at least in infancy. "The babies seem to be equipped with all the concepts, not only the ones we use in English," Dr Spelke said. (Los Angeles Times)

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