Deb Roy: The birth of a word

13 Dec

 

Last night I watched this fascinating TED talk given by MIT researcher Deb Roy.  Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language — so he wired up his house with video cameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life.  He ended up with 90,000 hours of home video.  Using the 3 years of video footage, Roy traced each new word his son learned to the specific circumstances that led to his son’s acquisition of the word.  For example, he showed how his son’s babbling slowly changed from “gaaaa” into “water.” He looked at every context in which his son heard the word “water” during his first three years of life.  Roy analyzed many variables, such as who was present during each occurrence of the word “water” in the home, what room of the house were they in, and what were the adult language models or how was the word ‘water’ embedded in a sentence?

Roy’s research is data intensive and allowed him to draw conclusions and make connections between environment, language and learning.  He used beautiful, systematic, high-tech graphics to display his data.  The question of how we acquire new words during infancy has been explored readily in the field of language development.  We know that babies learn new words through repeated exposure, that it’s largely dependent on context and surroundings (ie. hearing the word water and seeing water at the same time), and utterance length of the language model (does mom embed the new word in short 1-2 word phrases or in long, complex sentences?).  However, Roy’s data is novel in that the time-lapse technology he uses and his graphic displays have implications for a new way of observing word acquisition over time and provides a closer look at how learning is taking place.

Roy also extends his findings to social media and examines how people behave and communicate in response to specific events in time.  He explores and pinpoints how trends get started, and how new ideas spread, through social media.

Roy’s research both confirmed what we already know about how babies acquire new words and pushed the field of Language & Communication Sciences to a new boundary.  Scientists may have a new way to create models and graphically display language data, connect language circumstances and observe not only language acquisition in infancy, but the larger implications for tracing behavioral patterns through language in social media.

As a Language Development nerd, I found this talk fascinating, and if you have 20 minutes to watch the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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One Response to “Deb Roy: The birth of a word”

  1. Deb Truskey (@SLPDeb) December 13, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    I did see this on TED and also on several YouTube videos. I agree, it is fascinating! What I thought was so inspiring is that even with the phenomenal amounts of observational data on file via his recordings … this word acquisition task is still a miracle. It happens right in front of us all of the time and it’s incredible. I thought his management of the data was amazing! I also agree with you that there are great implications here for further studies in words and how they impact society and trends. I have always thought that this field of ours is an exciting one. Always has been … and looks like it will continue to be that way for a very, very, long time.

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