I choose you! How do children decide who to ask for help?

Written by: Jessica Huang

April 7th, 2022


Children encounter many people in their day-to-day lives, and they’re absorbing a lot of information rapidly. Sometimes, children can receive conflicting information from others, so how do children decide whose information to trust? 

This is what Kathleen Corriveau and Katherine Kinzler explored in their study involving 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. They asked what children prioritize when two potential cues to people’s knowledge conflict.

The children were presented with two female English-Spanish bilingual speakers. To start, the children heard each speaker tell a little story, which familiarized them to each speaker’s accent. One spoke in English with a native English accent and the other spoke in English with a Spanish accent. After this, children were introduced to several novel toys. They were asked which girl they would want to find out the name of the toys from. This served as the children’s baseline preference – before they learned more about the speakers’ knowledge, did children prefer the native-accented speaker or the non-native accented speaker? Previous research has shown that children typically prefer native-accented speakers. Next, children learned more about each speaker’s competence in naming objects . Children were presented with several familiar objects and watched each speaker label them. One speaker always labelled the items correctly and the other speaker always labelled the items incorrectly. For example, the accurate speaker would label a spoon with the correct label, spoon, but the inaccurate speaker would label it as a duck. Children were then shown additional novel toys and had to indicate which girl they wanted to ask for help to find out their names. 

Before children had learned anything about how good the speakers were at naming objects, children across all three age groups were most likely to endorse the native-accented speaker. In other words, they were more likely to indicate they wanted to ask the native-accented girl to find out the name of the novel toy. Children’s preferences changed once they learned more about how accurate the speakers were at naming. When the native-accented speaker correctly labelled the familiar items, children continued to prefer the native speaker. However, when the native-accented speaker incorrectly labelled the familiar items, the 4-and 5-year-olds showed a clear shift in preference, endorsing the non-native accented speaker. 3-year-olds didn’t show a clear preference for either speaker in this case, which indicates that they aren’t prioritizing accuracy over accent in the way that older children are. Children were also asked why they thought the speakers were wrong. When the native-accented speaker was wrong, most children said it was because “she was just pretending.” When the non-native accented speaker had been incorrect, most children said it was because “she didn’t know” the names of the familiar items.   

This study is incredibly interesting because it demonstrates the complex ways in which children weigh conflicting cues to choose who might give them better information in a particular situation. Older children don’t show a stable preference for native-accented speakers. Instead, their judgement is flexible and depends on other cues about people’s knowledge. This study also demonstrates how children attribute the same kind of error to different causes, depending on who the speaker is!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below: 

Corriveau, K. H., Kinzler, K. D., & Harris, P. L. (2013). Accuracy trumps accent in children's endorsement of object labels. Developmental Psychology, 49(3), 470–479.


Can you guess where I’m from? Children use accents to figure out where people live

Written by: Jessica Huang

 March 14th, 2022

For adults, a person’s accent is a strong cue to where they are from. For example, you will probably assume someone with a Japanese accent is from Japan and someone with Mexican accent is from Mexico. Do children understand that there is a link between accent and background? It turns out they do! Even if children’s inferences are not as sophisticated as adults’, studies have shown that, when asked, children will say that someone with the same accent as them lives in the same area as them (and that someone with a different accent lives in a different place than they do). But these early studies involved children comparing their own accents to someone else’s. Do children also understand more generally that people with the same accent tend to share the same background and that people with different accents have different backgrounds? 

To explore these questions, Weatherhead and colleagues conducted a study with 3- to 5-year-olds. In experiment 1, children were introduced to two speakers with the same unfamiliar accent. Children were assigned to one of two conditions, either the background or the preference condition. In the background condition, children were told where one of the speakers lived (e.g., she lives in a snowy place). They were then asked where the other speaker lived. Children were presented with three options: the same snowy place and two other locations. In the preference condition, children were told about the favourite colour of the first speaker instead. Then, children were asked about the other speaker’s favourite colour. They were presented with three options, with one of the options being the same colour.

If children in the background condition understand that two people with the same unfamiliar accent are likely to come from the same place, they should choose the same location for the second speaker at an above-chance rate (33%). However, since people who come from the same place do not necessarily have the same colour preferences, children should not choose the same colour for the second speaker at an above-chance rate. As predicted, results showed that children in the background condition chose the same location at a higher rate than chance, indicating that they inferred the two speakers came from the same place. Children in the preference condition chose the same colour at a rate below chance, indicating that they did not expect two speakers with the same accent to necessarily share the same preferences.  

In a follow-up study, 4- to 5-year-old children heard two speakers with two different unfamiliar accents. As in the first study, they were told where one speaker lived, then asked where the second speaker lived. In this condition, children were less likely to choose the same place. This indicates that children don’t make the generalization that anyone with an unfamiliar accent comes from the same place. They can tell accents apart, and seem to be sensitive to the fact that speakers with different accents (even when both accents are unfamiliar) are likely to come from different places.  

Overall, the two studies indicate that children can make sophisticated inferences based on someone’s accent. Children believe that people with the same accents share some of the same experiences – like where they are from -- but they do not generalize this to assume that they share everything. They also assume that people with different accents come from different places. So even though young children don’t know much about specific countries yet, they still have basic assumptions that how someone talks can tell you something about where they are from!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below: 


3 cues that children use to help guide their word learning

Written by: Ashley Avarino and Shaneene Heupel

February 14th, 2022


Every day, children are faced with an incredible amount of new information in their environment: new smells, new sights, new people and new objects. Not only do they need to take in all this new information, but they also need to learn how to communicate about it. One example of this is when children are faced with learning the names for things in their environment. This may seem like a straightforward task, especially since infants make it look easy and effortless! But, it’s actually a huge challenge!  


The Gavagai Problem

Let’s put ourselves in their shoes by diving into The Gavagai Problem. The Gavagai Problem was put forward by Willard Van Orman Quine, a popular 20th Century Philosopher. Quine’s thought experiment demonstrates one of the main challenges children are faced with during word learning: in any given situation in which they might hear a new word, there are endless possibilities for what that word could mean!

Imagine that you’re standing next to someone who speaks a different language from you. All of a sudden, a rabbit runs by and they yell “Gavagai!”. How would you know what they were referring to? You may think that it’s obvious that they are referring to the rabbit, but they really could be referring to just about anything! Gavagai could refer to the speed of the rabbit, the colour of the rabbit, it could be a phrase for being startled, or perhaps they didn’t even see the rabbit run by and they’re referring to something else entirely. 

The Gavagai Problem demonstrates that in any given learning situation, there are many possibilities for what a word could mean. This gives us a bit of a sense of what children are faced with when learning the words of their native language.

The Gavagai Problem: A Child’s Perspective

Let’s frame The Gavagai Problem from a child’s perspective: Imagine that your little one just got a new toy hammer and that you’ve placed it in their toy basket. That evening you’re sitting in the living room, and you say “Do you like your hammer?”. Although to you it might seem obvious that you are referring to their new toy, to your little one, who doesn’t yet know what a hammer is, you really could be referring to just about anything! So, how does your child figure out that you are referring to the hammer?

In this blog we walk you through 3 strategies that young children use to help them solve the Gavagai Problem and figure out what words refer to in their immediate environment. 


Strategy 1: Joint Attention

You might notice that as you are talking to your little one about things around them, they are pretty good at attending to the things that you’re attending to. The ability to attend to someone else’s focus of attention is called joint attention, and it can help learners solve The Gavagai Problem. In our Hammer example above, your child might check to see where you’re looking when you use the word, “Hammer”. If they see that you are looking at the toy box, they will assume that you are probably talking about something in there! 

Strategy 2: Mutual Exclusivity

Another strategy that your child might use to help them figure out which toy you’re labelling is called mutual exclusivity. Mutual exclusivity is a bias to assume that each kind of object only has one label. So, if your child already has a name for the other toys in their toy box, they can make the assumption that when you say “Hammer!” you’re referring to the new toy: the object they do not yet have a name for! 

Strategy 3: Whole-Object Bias

But wait! Even though they’ve narrowed down that you’re talking about the hammer, there are still so many things about the hammer that you could be referring to. How does your child know that you’re not talking about the shape, the colour, the texture, or a specific part of the hammer? How do they infer that “hammer” refers to the object as a whole? The answer to this is another bias: the whole object bias. The whole object bias is an assumption that labels refer to objects as a whole, rather than their parts. This is part of the reason why so many of a child’s earliest words are object words.

Working Together to Solve The Gavagai Problem

We know that children use these three strategies to help guide their word learning In fact, children are often using these strategies simultaneously – for example, they may use your eye gaze to isolate the direction of what you’re talking about and then pick out the most likely whole object. But these strategies also require different levels of expertise. For example, in order to use the mutual exclusivity bias, your child needs to already know some words. Learning language is a huge task – but learners have many strategies like these in their toolbox to help them do it!  

What can uhhhs and ummms tell us? 

Written by: Shaneene Heupel


When we talk, we don’t always speak perfectly fluently. We make all sorts of corrections or hesitations, like saying “ummm” and “uhhh”. You might think that these sorts of things are unnecessary and you might even think that they make it harder for a listener to understand what someone is saying. But, research has shown that these types of hesitations (also called disfluencies) are actually kind of important and can provide a lot of information to people listening! In one of our labs, the Lab for Infant Development and Language, run by Dr. Katherine White, we have been exploring how children interpret these types of disfluencies in speech.

Umms and uhhs can provide two main kinds of information for listeners. The first is that they can tell listeners how confident someone is in what they are saying. For example, if you ask someone whether the next step in a recipe is to beat the eggs or to add the milk, and they say, “Uhh, I think the next step is to beat the eggs…”, you might not be very sure that that is indeed the next step! After all, they don’t sound very confident about it.  In one study, we asked whether children use speech fluency to help them decide who has better information. In this study, children were presented with two puppets. First, the puppets each named three familiar objects. One of the speakers talked about the objects fluently, while the other talked about them disfluently (e.g., “This is a clock” vs. “This is a uhhh clock”). After labelling familiar objects, each puppet pointed at and labelled one of two unfamiliar objects, with the same label (e.g., “This is a blicket” vs. “This is a uhhh blicket”). 

Children were asked which of the two objects was labelled correctly. Children’s responses showed they “trusted” the fluent speaker’s label for the new object more than they “trusted” the disfluent speaker’s label. In past blog posts, we’ve talked about how children choose to learn information from someone who has been more accurate in the past, or who seems more likely to know the information (like a child, when the topic is toys!) But these results show that children might also decide whether to learn from a person in a particular situation because of how sure they sound. 

Disfluencies can occur when a speaker is unsure, but they can also arise for other reasons. For example, speech disfluencies can occur when a speaker changes topics, probably because it can take a little time to get your brain ready to talk about the new topic. For example, imagine you are talking to your friend about something that happened during a TV show, then they ask you how to make your famous black bean burgers. Your friend’s recipe question might have caught you off guard because you weren’t thinking about it! This might cause you to pause as you switch topics, but not because you don’t know your recipe! Research has shown that listeners seem to be sensitive to this aspect of disfluencies, too! In another study we did, we presented children with two pictures, like a ball and a dog. We then had a recording of someone talking about one of the pictures (“Look at the ball! I see a ball!”). When they heard this, children looked at the ball. But if they then heard the person say, “Look at the uhhh….”, children started looking at the dog, even before they heard the word! This is because they assumed that if the person was hesitating, they were about to switch topics and talk about the other picture. 

All of this is to say that hesitations like disfluencies (umms and uhhs) are just a normal part of speech! These types of speech patterns are actually giving listeners important information, and even young kids know how to interpret them!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

3 Strategies Your Baby Uses to Solve the Speech Segmentation Problem

Written by: Ashley Avarino


What is the Speech Segmentation Problem?

When you listen to people talk, you may have the impression that each word they speak is separated by a brief silence. But, in fact, natural speech is a continuous flow of sounds, with almost no pauses occurring between words! When we listen to our own language, our brain “inserts” pauses between the words that we pull out of the speech stream. But inserting pauses is not something that our brain does automatically. This becomes more obvious if you listen to an unfamiliar language – it’s almost impossible to tell how many words are being spoken, or where they start and end. So, we need to learn word boundaries before our brain can insert pauses where they belong! The fact that speech is continuous poses a problem for our smallest language learners: How do infants begin to find the boundaries between words? In this article we discuss three strategies that your infant uses to pull words out of the speech stream!


Strategy 1: Tracking What Sounds “Go Together”


Infants can track sound patterns to help them find where a word starts and ends. Sounds that “go together” most often across sentences also tend to be the sounds that create words. For example, the word babyincludes the sounds ba and by – each time the word baby is heard, the sounds ba precede the sounds by. After listening to many sentences in the speech around them that have these sounds, infants can track that they “go together” and pull them out of the speech stream as the word baby.


Strategy 2: The Way Words Sound


Infants also use prosody to find word boundaries. Prosody is the intonation and rhythm of a language, and one aspect of prosody is the patterning of syllable stress in words. In some languages (e.g., English) the first syllable of a word is usually emphasized, while in other languages (e.g., French) the second syllable is more likely to be emphasized. Take a look at the sound waveforms below. Both are representations of the same word being spoken, Pizza. But, the first syllable is emphasized in the waveform on the left, while the second syllable is emphasized in the waveform on the right!

How do infants use syllable stress to segment words? Let’s say you are an English-learning infant. If you heard a syllable that was emphasized, it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that it’s the beginning of a word. The opposite would be true if you were a French-speaking infant: you would assume the emphasized syllable is the end of a word!


Strategy 3: Anchoring to Familiar Words


A third strategy that your infant uses to segment words from the speech stream is anchoring to familiar words. Let’s say that your infant’s name is Ashley, and that Ashley knows their name. When Ashley hears the sentence “Look, Ashley’s bike!”, they can infer two things: first, that the string of sounds “look” must belong to a word that came before their name, and second, that the string of sounds “bike” must belong to a word that came after their name. How do they infer this? They infer this by using the beginning and end sounds of their name as markers for the word boundaries; they know that Ashley is a word, so whatever comes before it should belong to a different word, and whatever comes after it should belong to yet another word.


Which Came First: The Chicken or the Egg?

Although these strategies give us some insight into how infants segment speech, we are left with another question: Which one comes first? It would seem as though infants would need a bit of knowledge about words to use some of these strategies. For example, to use familiar words as anchors they would need to already know some words. And, to use the stress pattern of words, they would need to know many wordsthat use this stress pattern. Developmental Psychologists think that infants are first learning some words in isolation (e.g., their name, “mama”, “dada”, “bottle”, “teddy”, etc.) and then use these words to build up to these other strategies. Additionally, tracking what sounds “go together” may not necessarily require any prior knowledge of words – without knowing any words in a speech stream, infants can pick out the sounds that most likely compose a single word based on how often those sounds occur together! If you pause and think about it, that’s pretty amazing.

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Perceiving is believing? Children learn from confident people even when it conflicts with their own perceptions

Written by: Jessica Huang


We learn from other people all the time, so how do we decide whether someone is a credible source of information? Well, we often take someone’s confidence as a sign that they know what they’re talking about. 

Vikram Jaswal and Lauren Malone conducted a study that explored whether young children use cues to a speaker’s confidence to decide whether someone is credible. Someone’s level of confidence can be expressed through both verbal cues (like saying “I know” vs. “I think”) or non-verbal cues, such as furrowed brows and a tilted head. Jaswal and Malone wanted to know whether children relied on a speaker’s confidence to decide whether to learn something that conflicted with the child’s own perceptions.

To do this, the researchers created hybrid objects, which were computer generated using various common objects. For example, there was a key-like item, which had features of both a spoon and a key, but ultimately looked more like a key.

Using the key-like item as an example, 3-year-old children were first shown a picture of a car and a typical key. Using the picture of the typical key, the experimenter demonstrated that the key was used to start the car. Children were also shown a picture of a bowl and a typical spoon. Again, the experimenter used the picture of the typical spoon to demonstrate that it was used for eating cereal out of the bowl. Finally, children were shown the key-like object. The experimenter then labelled it as a spoon, which was inconsistent with its appearance. Some children heard the experimenter label the item confidently by saying, “This is a spoon.” Other children heard the experimenter sound uncertain by saying “I think this a spoon” while furrowing their brows. Children were then asked whether the key-like item was used to start the car or to eat cereal out of the bowl.      

When children in the confident condition heard that the key-like item was a spoon, they were likely to agree with the experimenter and indicate that it would be used to eat cereal from the bowl. However, when the experimenter had been uncertain, children were more likely to indicate that the key-like item would be used to start the car. In other words, they were more skeptical of the label that was provided by the uncertain experimenter, and thus, were more likely to ignore it and make their decision about the object’s function based on its appearance.  

Children learn a great deal about the world from what other people tell them. However, this study shows that they don’t take everything people tell them at face value, especially when it conflicts with what they can perceive directly themselves! Although children are willing to rely on a confident adult’s information even when it conflicts with an object’s appearance, they are not willing to rely on a less confident adult in this situation. Studies like this show us that children are balancing many different factors during learning, such as a speaker’s confidence and their own guesses about what something is! 

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below: 

How do children choose who to learn from?

Written by: Shaneene Heupel

Children are constantly faced with new information – new people, new words, new objects – and therefore are constantly learning. In fact, their main job in the first few years of life is to learn. But how do they learn? Some information is learned through their own observations and experiences, however, much of it is learned from other people. But people have varying levels of knowledge, they make mistakes, they may be misinformed, or they might just be deceptive. So, how does a child determine when and if a speaker is sharing information that is useful to them? Research suggests that children use certain cues to help them determine whether a speaker is likely to have good information. One such cue is a speaker’s past behaviour – how accurate they have been in the past, how confident they appear, and whether they have demonstrated expertise in a given topic. 

In the past, this person has been correct about the information they have told me – should I trust them when learning new information? For adults, the answer is yes. But do children come to the same conclusion? Yes, they do! In fact, lots of research shows that children are very good at keeping track of someone’s past accuracy and use that information to decide whether they can trust this person when learning about something new. One typical way to test this is by presenting children with two possible people to learn from. One person is always accurate, labeling objects like a cat, a book, and a banana correctly. Another person is always inaccurate, giving these objects the wrong labels (perhaps saying cow, door, and flower). Children are then presented with an object they have never seen before and are asked which of the speakers they want to learn the name of the new object from. Children are much more likely to choose the previously accurate individual. In fact, even if both people were mostly accurate, children can keep track of how often each person was accurate, and they prefer to learn from the one who was accurate more often.

This speaker doesn’t seem to know much – should I choose to learn new information from them? For adults, the answer to this is “probably not”. It turns out that children feel the same way! Even if two people both provide the right answers about familiar things, if one person always says things like “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “I think” before they answer, then children will prefer to learn new information from the other person. 

I want to learn about cars. This person has shown me that they know a lot about cars. Should I ask them to teach me new things about cars? For adults the answer is clear – of course we should ask the car expert for car information. Do children choose who to learn from someone based on their expertise in a given topic? Yes, they do! For example, when children need to learn about animals, they are more likely to ask an animal expert over an artifact expert. So even though both people are experts in something, children consider the domain of expertise when deciding what to learn from them. 

So, children are careful learners! They weigh a number of factors to determine who might have the best information for them. The next time your child is learning something, see if you can notice the ways in which they are carefully evaluating what they are told!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Is Language Really Arbitrary?

Written by: Erin Kim


Language has many properties that make it special. One of these is something called arbitrariness, which is the fact that there is no intrinsic relationship between a word’s form (the way it sounds) and its meaning. For example, there is nothing about the sound of the word “dog” that indicates it is referring to a furry, four-legged, canine animal. This is the reason why the same animal can be called something completely different (“chien”) in French!  With the exception of a few words that sound like what they refer to  (e.g. “meow”, “buzz”, “boom”), the words of a language are typically thought to be arbitrary in this way. 


But not so fast! Is everything else really arbitrary? Try this famous experiment out for yourself!

 One of the two figures below is a “bouba”, and the other is a “kiki”. Which is which?

If you guessed that shape A is the “bouba” and shape B is the “kiki”, your intuitions are in line with about 95% of people who also participated in this experiment. But, if language is arbitrary, how is it that there is such consistency in how people make associations between these words and figures? The reason behind this reliable pattern is thought to lie in how visual features of the figures align with features of how sounds are produced. For instance, the sharp points in shape B may be associated with the sharper sounding inflections and movements of the tongue required to produce the word “kiki”. On the other hand, the roundness of shape A might resemble the rounded formation of our mouths when producing the word “bouba”. These types of findings suggest that our brains do make links between the way things sound and what they mean! 


So, what does this say about the arbitrariness of language? Based on this experiment, it seems as though the form of a word has the potential to carry valuable information about its meaning after all. Now people are actively looking at the vocabularies of real languages to see whether there are patterns in the words we used based on these types of sound-meaning links! It could be that our vocabularies are a mix of fully arbitrary words and words that have tighter (non-arbitrary) relationships between sound and meaning. And some people have even argued that it is the non-arbitrary words that got our ancestors started with language in the first place! This kiki/bouba effect will surely lead to many more explorations into this fascinating property of language!


Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Do Children Prefer to Learn from Adults or Other Children?

Written by: Jessica Huang

Children are like sponges – they readily soak up the information that’s around them! But how do children decide who to “soak up” this information from? Adults seem like the obvious choice, but what about their peers? Are there conditions under which children think other children know more about a topic than an adult? 


Previous studies have demonstrated that children generally consider adults to be more knowledgeable than their peers. This makes sense because, in general, adults do have more information. However, children don’t always prefer to learn information from adults! A study by Vikram Jaswal and Leslie Neely found that 3- and 4-year-old children prefer to learn information from a child, rather than an adult, when it is clear that the adult is unreliable. In this study, children saw an adult provide incorrect labels for common objects, (for example, labelling a shoe a “telephone”) and a child provide correct labels for those objects. Then, children saw a new object and heard the adult and child informants provide two different labels for it. Children participating in the study were more likely to say that the previously accurate child was right about the new object’s label. So, children are more likely to believe their peers if they have direct evidence that adults don’t know what they’re talking about! When else might they endorse their peers over adults?    

Mieke VanderBorght and Vikram Jaswal conducted a follow-up study investigating if children would trust other children to know more about particular topics than adults. 3-to-5-year-old children chose who would be better to learn from when the topic was either children’s toys or the nutritional value of food. It was expected that children would think that other children would know more about the toys, whereas adults would know more about the nutritional value of food.  

Participants were first introduced to a child and an adult. Then they saw different toys or food items. For each toy, children were asked, “Who would know what this toy does?” and for each food item they were asked, “Who would know why this food is good for you?” Children were instructed to choose between the child or the adult. As predicted, children across all age groups indicated that the child would know more about the toys, and the adult would know more about the food. 

They also looked at situational factors – what if the toy was the adult’s favourite toy and the child had never seen it before? Or what if the food was the child’s favourite food and the adult had never seen it before? In these cases, most children indicated that the child would know more about their favourite food, and the adult would know more about their favourite toy. These findings demonstrate that while children generally believe there are particular categories that a child might know more about (like toys), they flexibly use other information, such as an individual’s experience with an item, to decide whether a particular individual has the information they need. When told that the child knew nothing about the toy, children as young as 3 years old were able to take this into consideration and make the judgement that the adult would be more knowledgeable about this specific toy, due to their experience with it. 

More work remains to be done to see what other factors might influence children’s beliefs about who has the most knowledge. But, importantly, this research shows that children are selective sponges – they consider different factors before soaking up information!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Do you see what I'm saying? Infants and children look at your lips when you talk!

Written by: Ashley Avarino

We use the expression, “Do you see what I’m saying?” when we want to make sure someone understands us. But why would we ask if they can see what we’re saying, when spoken language consists of sounds? Although we might think of spoken language as something we only hear, there are actually visual elements of language, too. One of these is a speaker’s lip movements.  

Looking at someone’s mouth can give us information about the sounds they are making, and in some cases, this helps us understand what they’re saying. You have probably experienced this yourself if you have ever struggled to hear someone in a loud, crowded room – it becomes easier to hear what they’re saying when you look at their mouth.  

Is this something that only adults do? Or does your child also use lip movements to help them understand what someone is saying? Keep reading to find out! 

Research by David Lewkowicz and colleagues suggests that infants begin to look at a speaker’s mouth during their first year of life. These researchers had infants aged 4-months to 12-months watch a video of an adult speaking English. While the infants were watching the video, the researchers tracked their eye movements to see what part of the adult’s face they were looking at. They found that infants aged 4-6-months looked more at the adult’s eyes, but infants aged 8-12-months looked more at the adult’s mouth. This is neat, because it’s between the ages of 8-12-months that infants learn which sounds are important in their native language! This suggests that infants pay attention to as much information as they can, including lip movements, during this process. 

Older children also look at the mouth of someone talking to them. Elizabeth Morin-Lessard and her colleagues investigated looking to the mouth in infants aged 5-months to 14-months, toddlers aged 2-3 years, and children aged 4-5 years. They found that the only age group that did not prefer to look at the mouth while watching an adult talk was 5-month-olds. So, with the exception of the littlest among us, language learners spend a lot of time looking at their conversation partner’s mouth! 

You may be wondering what happens when we can’t see someone’s mouth, for example, when they are wearing a mask. Masks are important for keeping us safe during the pandemic, but they block access to a speaker’s lip movements. Does mask-wearing influence language development? 

The short answer to this question is: don’t worry! While the above research demonstrates that infants and children look at the mouth when an individual is talking, looking to the mouth is not necessary for language development. Children who cannot see the mouths of those they are talking to (e.g., children who are blind, or children in cultures where face coverings are common) do not experience any delays in their language development. Why not? Because the most important language cue is speech! And, language learners make use of many other linguistic cues, with lip movements being just one! For example, infants and children also pay attention to where someone is looking as they talk, and this can help them learn the meaning of words. (Stay tuned for our next language blog post, where we discuss the top 5 cues your child uses while learning language). 

It’s also important to remember that infants and young children receive most of their language input from primary caregivers. Many studies have shown that this is the most important language input for their language development. Your child will have plenty of opportunity to pay attention to your lip movements when you are home without a mask, to give them a little language boost!  


Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below: