The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

February 25, 2013

How much do babies understand?

By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item

— LEWISBURG - If a babies can walk, do they understand verbs?

That’s a lofty question for adults to ponder. Fifteen-month-old Lydia Ritter was busy with a Fisher-Price “Brilliant Basics Rock-a-Stack,” and rock it she did, doing a fine job of putting the bright plastic rings back onto a pole.

The playtime was well earned; Lydia, daughter of Stacy Ritter, of Montandon, just had her test in Baby Lab, a Bucknell University research project on early infant development — specifically, how babies learn words before they can talk.

It’s the furthest thing from a lab one might imagine; no beakers or test tubes, just toys and a playroom, a TV monitor and recording equipment.

“We’re looking at how infants connect to words,” said Ruth Tincoff, assistant professor of psychology, who founded Baby Lab when she arrived at Bucknell in 2008. “It’s a very small focus and very targeted.”

In the four years since Baby Lab was founded, about 80 families have brought in infants for play and study in learning about infant and child development, language and cognition.

The babies just do what they do and Tincoff and her team — seven students this semester — record the results.

“I can see in real life what I’m learning in class,” said Christa Wojcik, a junior linguistics and psychology major from Brooklyn, N.Y. Amanda Sloboden, a senior psychology and Spanish major from Wellesley, Mass., said Baby Lab fits in well with her studies of another language.

And Becky Boucher, a junior neuroscience major from Simsbury, Conn., who wants to be an optometrist, said while the connection may not be clear, “this has taught me a lot about children that I can apply. It’s lessons for all walks of life.”

The test this particular day was simple: Lydia sat on Mom’s lap in front of a flat-screen TV that showed several images. Mom put on a cap with a blind in front so she couldn’t see the screen and influence Lydia with her reactions.

At first, one image was still and the other had movement. The images then changed to one of a woman dancing and one of a woman walking.

A small concealed speaker broadcasted repeatedly the words “walk” or “dance” in several pitches, and the researchers recorded Lydia’s reactions with a video camera.

Lydia was captivated and homed right in on the screen. “You watch their eyes and how long the babies look,” Tincoff said. That’s a good predicator if the baby understands the word. Lydia’s reactions to “walk” and “dance” appeared right on time. Several minutes later, the test was done.

How’d she do? The Baby Lab team will figure that out later. For their efforts, parents get a $5 gift card to Weis Markets or Dunkin’ Donuts and a choice of a book or puzzle for the baby.

In practical terms, Tincoff said, the study helps clinicians and therapists establish benchmarks for children for several levels of development.

In sentimental terms, “for families, it’s the joy of learning what their babies do understand,” Tincoff said. “It’s the idea that the baby gets you before it can tell you.”