Research

Most of my research has focused on word learning in very young children (18-24 months). I emphasize the various social and cognitive skills that toddlers bring to the task of learning words. By focusing on the social contexts in which children actually acquire their first words, it becomes clear that children are very actively involved in determining the referential intentions of others. In brief, my view is that when children hear a speaker use an unfamiliar term, they must focus their attention on the same entity (object, attribute, action) that the speaker is focused on. That is, when children learn new words, their objective is not to establish the abstract "meanings" of the words themselves, but, in a more general sense, their goal in each word learning situation involves trying to understand what their social partner wants to call their attention to. My studies have been aimed largely at trying to uncover the various social skills and types of information children use in this process.

More recently, I have begun to examine young children's learning from overhearing or eavesdropping on others' conversations (Akhtar, 2005a); that is, their learning of new words from people who are not talking to them. These findings have made me re-think the role of joint attention in early word learning (Akhtar, 2005b; Akhtar & Gernsbacher, 2007). There is a large literature showing that the more joint attention children experience with their caregivers (where they are both focused on the same thing and on each other), the larger their vocabularies. The fact that children can learn words from someone who is not even addressing them, however, demonstrates that they do not require adults to solicitously provide labels for the things they are focused on. Rather, young children actively monitor others' interactions and can learn a new word even when the speaker is not engaged with them.

In summary, the main point of my studies is that young children - even those who probably experience lots of "teaching interactions" at home - do not require adult naming lessons to learn new words. They are also capable of learning new words in the flow of ongoing social interactions in which an adult uses novel language to regulate behavior, to anticipate upcoming events, in general, to 'do things with words' other than explicitly teach them to the child. These studies demonstrate that young children are actively engaged in determining the referential intentions of adults, and can do so in a wide variety of circumstances.





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