Knowing what they know

It is hard to know what’s inside your head. That’s why language is what it is—it comes into the room, and the real show begins. This is our natural linguistic ability—to draw out thoughts and communicate value; language is as Paul Ricœur puts it, “the surplus of meaning.” It is like water from a brook, moving as language flows from the simple volition to say something. That effortless process we take for granted every day is a monumental task for the beginner person—the infant. It is for those reasons’ humanity has been asking for ages; What do infants know? Can we know what they know about language? What is it infants know when they know there first word?

 We understand our linguistic capability by our growing skill to analyze its facets. Whether that be phonological, morphological, or syntaxial—all these and more—are the textures and possibilities of knowing explicit language facts. However, what about the infant? Does our analytical system peer into the mind of a newborn? Frankly, it does not.

Nevertheless, the researcher is left an intuition that something is there—the infant grows, and his/her ability to say something also grows. But what is the first step? How does the first word become what it is, a fully-fledged word of meaning and reciprocation? This post hopes to shed light on what is unstated in the hidden mind of languages earliest formations. 

“Trying to find out what young infants know is quite difficult because they can’t speak and they’re notoriously poor at following instructions, so over the years scientists have developed a number of indirect tasks to probe infant capabilities.”(0:00-0:028, Werker) 

The above remark was taken from a video embedded below, however, Dr. Werker basic remark reveals the difficulty in formulating a working model of infant speech perception. Scouring through linguistic and language behavior abstracts (LLBA) has shown me how contingent models of speech perception can be, still, they are workable and are opento new evidence and changing schemes. In other words, the concepts one model of infant speech perception formulates may seem to contradiction or at least be in tension with another model. Yet the organization of these models has shown me that conceptual differences, though appearing to be contradictory at points, are in reality just conceptual differences touching upon the same reality at different communicative levels. I had to read these abstracts with a bag of salt next to me, preserving what I could and putting away the majority of papers for a lack of a linguistic register. 

Nonetheless, the models of what actually takes place in the mind an infant during speech perception is a reality we can begin to uncover—no promises. We’ll briefly highlight key authors I thought illustrated the mechanisms of speech perception and production well. 

In the journal of Phonetics Werker discusses the relation of two key models that are still used by researchers today. She states “JUSCZYK and VIHMAN present models of how children make the transition into word use, and how a phonological system might develop. VIHMAN focuses primarily on the relation between early babbling and subsequent word production, whereas JUSCZYK focuses on the ways in which the skills apparent in infant speech perception might facilitate progress into word segmentation and word recognition.” (Werker, pg. 1) 

As my research progresses and as my hypotheses question becomes more apparent, I find VIHMAN understanding of babbling a key insight. The “babbling and subsequent word production” that Werker describes, is on a continuum that is as subtle as a flowers bloom. You wake up one morning and all of a sudden you have a flower bloomed staring at you—the child speaks. However, contrary to my previous notions, there is no direct breaker line when babies begin to speak and utter their first word so that babbling ceases to exist. This principle of a continuum recognizes that infants formulate their first recognizable word through babbling and not from it. Through babbling is more or less a metaphor that further points to VIHMAN theory that vocal motor schemes, which ties a link between perception and production. The main focus of Werker journal entry quoting VIHMAN saying, “The phonological basis of word selection … can be explicated as reflecting child ‘knowledge’ of his or her own vocal motor schemes, facilitating production of those schemes in situations in which the lexical patterns heard as matching would be appropriate.” (Werker, pg. 1 VIHMAN, page 75). This is profound. A child has knowledge. The knowledge is of his or her own vocal motor schemes in babbling and thus babbling falls into word selection and early word formation. The profundity of this I cannot explore here but what is the depth and description of this ownership in knowing your motor schemes as an infant? 

Vihman’s theory explains some of the realties behind phonetically constant forms children make like wawa for water and dodo for dog. The child’s knowledge of his or her articulators opens up the door for more of the philosophical reasons behind this kind of knowledge. The vibrations and cooing noises of varying pitches are seen as an effort to match mom and dad and are the bases of this articulatory knowledge.  

“Taken together, these findings support the possibility that babbling could help the child consolidate perceptual categories, including those that are used in word comprehension. To reiterate, the first influences might be purely perceptual, and result in changes in the ease with which infants can discriminate various aspects of native-language input. The changing perceptual sensitivities might direct babbling during the second half of the first year of life. Babbling could facilitate consolidation of native-language phonetic categories, and this in turn could direct further babbling as well as direct the child’s early word production (de Boysson-Bardies & Vihman, 1991) (Werker, pg. 179).” 

How incredible and yet patience we have to be to realize the wonder that a child’s abilities is far more than we have ever thought. The realization of how this all happens is like the simmering shock that the earth isn’t flat—the child isn’t a flat blank slate.

In summary, we briefly turn to JUSCZYK theory. The underpinnings of behaviorisms as an apparatus for research negatively shapes research outcomes but that is for another post. JUSCZYK theory is nonetheless foundational for infant speech perception and Werker also draws on his research’s distinctions. She states about his work in relation to Vihman, “these perceptual abilities eventually leave the child with a set of skills that will allow efficient and accurate segmentation and representation of language input.” (Werker, pg. 1) 

Our million-dollar question is what are these skills? 

“Infants as young as 9 months showed significant discrimination of the phrase boundary stimuli but only if the stimuli were produced with the high pitch and wide pitch-range characteristic of speech to infants and young children (Jusczyk, Hirsch-Pasek, et al., 1992). Because it is unlikely that infants comprehended the passages, the most likely factor underlying their ability to discriminate and therefore prefer the concordant pauses over the mis-paused passages is that they had noted through experience the typical correlation in English of syllable lengthening, pitch resetting, and pausing that occurs at the boundaries of major linguistic units.” (Gerken & Aslin, page 8)

Jusczyk interest in prosody continues to pay off, 

“The logic of this argument is that infants who can divide the speech stream into linguistically appropriate units, such as phrases, and can engage in further lexical and syntactic analysis over these units are at an advantage over infants who attempt to analyze entire utterances (Morgan, 1986; Morgan & Newport, 1981). This “prosodic bootstrap- ping” account of early language development was profoundly influential… (Gerken & Aslin, page 9)

For my research design I find the early word formation a key factor in what I believe to be the best way to delve in the mystery of early language acquisition. The first word and early formations are joyously sought for in research and what joy it is to see the flower bloom. 


Werker, J. F. (1993). The contribution of the relation between vocal production and perception to a developing phonological system. Journal of Phonetics, 21(1-2), 177-180. 

Gerken, L., & Aslin, R. N. (2005). Thirty years of research on infant speech perception: The legacy of peter W. jusczyk. Language Learning and Development, 1(1), 5-21. 

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