“Ga-Ga” for Daddy’s Data, Wall Street Journal, 3/8/11
How do babies learn to talk? What are the micro-evolutions of their speech? What happens on a daily basis at home to facilitate baby saying “wa-wa” for water? These are the questions currently under examination by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Deb Roy. After the birth of his son, he asked these same questions. Dr. Roy, a cognitive scientist, brought his technology and methodology into the home environment by installing eleven cameras and fourteen microphones in his home. They recorded his infant son’s interactions with caregivers for about ten hours each day. The goal of this study was to observe how language develops in the natural environment of the home and the influences of social interactions on this process. Previously, most studies on acquiring language take place in a lab without any parent-baby interaction. 90,000 hours of video footage and 140,000 hours of audio recordings later, Dr. Roy has assembled his team and begun the process of data analysis. Preliminary findings suggest the importance of caregivers simplifying their sentences until the baby learns a key word such as “water.” Only after baby learned the new word, caregivers spoke with more complex adult phrasing and sentences. Similar to the tiny movements that prepare a baby to roll, with this research we can also look at the little verbal “steps” that precede speech.