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Touch can Help Teach Infants Language

Update Date: Apr 23, 2014 03:54 PM EDT

Language development is important for young children because communication can greatly shape their growth. In a new study, researchers set out to see how parents, guardians or caregivers can help teach language to infants. They found that using the sense of touch aids in the learning process.

"We found that infants treat touches as if they are related to what they hear and thus these touches could have an impact on their word learning," said Amanda Seidl, an associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences who studies language acquisition reported by Medical Xpress. "We think of touch as conveying affection, but our recent research shows that infants can relate touches to their incoming speech signal. Others have looked at the role of touch with respect to babies forming an attachment and physical development. But until now the impact of touch on language learning has not been explored."

Seidl and her colleagues from Purdue University tested 48 four-month-old infants that came from English-learning families. The infants were divided into two groups at the Purdue's Infant Speech lab. All infants sat on their parent's laps when the experimenter played a series of nonsense words that were unrelated to one another.

In the first experiment, the researcher touched the infant's knee every time the word "dobita" was spoken. This totaled 24 times. In the same experiment, the word "lepoga" was played. However, for this word, the researcher only touched the infant's elbow once. The other 23 touches occurred at different syllable sequences that were not tied to the word, lepoga. The researchers found that when the infants listened to the stream of words during the language preference test, they were more likely to prefer the word, dobita.

During the second experiment, the researchers used another set of nonsense words that were played in a continuous stream of speech. This time, the experimenter touched his or her own eyebrow or chin as opposed to a specific body part on the infant. The researchers found that when the touch was not directly placed on the infant's body, there was no effect on language preference.

"It didn't matter how much time the infant spent looking at the experimenter's face, the babies were not able to use these cues in the same way as they were when their own body was touched," explained Seidl.

The study, "Why the body comes first: effects of experimenter touch on infants' word finding," was published in Developmental Science.

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