Understanding how children learn language

New York University’s Learn Lab uses eye tracking to study the learning mechanisms underlying language acquisition in children who are typically developing as well as children on the autism spectrum.

The NYU Learn Lab

Understanding how children learn language

Video courtesy of NYU Steinhardt

The NYU Learn Lab studies how children learn language and what things influence and affect their understanding. This research encompasses the fields of linguistics, cognitive and developmental psychology, and communication sciences and disorders. Eye tracking is the primary behavioral research tool at the lab as it delivers valuable insights into the cognitive processes of children as they are exposed to language-based tasks. Because the lab works with young children, some of whom have autism spectrum disorder, eye tracking allows researchers to study cognition even if the child does not yet speak.

 

“The main advantage of eye tracking is that it doesn’t require children to do or say anything explicit. Often young children or children with autism spectrum disorder are unable to communicate their understanding but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand. Eye tracking enables us to see if they are visually engaging with things that indicate understanding.”

Dr. Sudha Arunachalam, NYU Learn Lab Director.

One project at the Learn Lab is exploring how word choice in descriptive sentences can affect how children learn and understand new words. Using a game like experiment, researchers ask caregivers to give their child instructions relating to images displayed on the Tobii Pro Spectrum. Eye tracking data is used to determine the child’s level of understanding by mapping their gaze as they hear and respond to the instructions.

“With eye tracking we can see how children go about identifying the right one… do they wait until the end when they have all the necessary information, or do they start looking at relevant objects as they hear the information, and how long does it take them.”

Dr. Sudha Arunachalam, NYU Learn Lab Director

The study involves more than 100 children, both typically developing and with autism. It’s hoped that the information obtained from this research will be used to help develop better education techniques for children with varying ability levels.

If you’d like to read more about Dr Arunachalam’s research involving eye tracking, please have a look at this paper titled "A new experimental paradigm to study children’s processing of their parent’s unscripted language input.”