Monday, 1 February 2010

for the love of science

I love science.

It's like this dirty little secret I have. Shhh... don't talk about the B.Sc I have in biology. Okay, it's actually biopharmaceutical science with an honours in genomics. But, shhh...

A few years ago when I went back to university to take some psychology courses for fun (yes, I said fun), I became fascinated by infant word learning. And the prof was pretty cool. So when I had my baby, I looked up his lab to see if we could participate in a study.

They called me last week to tell me the sprout was eligible! Yeah!!!

It was a study to see if the sprout could differentiate between 2 similar sounding vowels in French and in English. The sprout sat on my lap with a video screen in front of us. I got to wear massive headphones and listen to horrendous music while the sprout was tested to see if he could differentiate between the two vowel sounds.

A checkerboard pattern would appear on the screen while a disembodied voice would say the sound. The first time this happened the sprout looked around wildly trying to find the source of this new voice. Apparently a lot of babies due this :) Once he had habituated to the first sound, the experimenter switched it to a second similar sound to see if he could tell the difference.

It's like dessus and dessous (over and under in French). A native speaker (one that has learned French from birth) can differentiate between the two sounds, however slight that difference is. English or bilingual non-native speakers (aka anglo me over here) can't. The only reason I know these are supposed to sound different is because of all the ballet training I had. Glissade dessus and dessous. Still, as a baby learns language are they able to differentiate between the sounds at such an early age? Do they pay attention to that detail?

I'm seriously hopping up and down I am so excited that the sprout is helping to find the answer.

I am such. a. dork.

Nonetheless, the sprout gave a stellar performance. He made it to the end of both trials that we participated in (French and English). He was able to provided two whole data points for the research... for science... for the greater good! Well, okay, maybe that's going a little far.

But he did get a t-shirt!

I'd just like to give a huge shout out to the Language Development Lab. Yeah awesomeness!


  1. Sounds really cool. What were the english words that they used? And could he tell the differences? How do they even know if he can tell the difference! I'm nerdy too :)

  2. It was vowel sounds. In the french trial it was u/ou put between a g and a k. In the english trial it was eh/ih (I think) again put between a g and a k.

    They measure how long the baby looks at the screen. After the same sound is played a few times the sprout got bored and stopped looking at the screen when the sound came on. If the sound is switched and the baby starts to pay attention to the screen again then they say that he can tell the difference, but if he doesn't hear or notice the difference he won't perk up to the new sound.

    I don't know if the sprout could tell the difference. I didn't ask because I don't think they would have told me. It's not about the individual performance, it's about how babies of different ages perform as a group (so at 7 months, what percentage of babies can notice a difference. Is it different than babies that are 9 months? etc.)

    I think if I was to go back to school I'd like to study this more. I think it's really cool :D Yes, big nerd over here...

  3. I put Courtney's name in for this study as well, but we still haven't heard back from them. :(

  4. It might just be the age that she is right now, Pam. They were testing ~8 month olds at the moment. They are doing more studies at 14 months of age so they may still contact you in a few months for some other studies :)