Temple Infant & Child Laboratory | Language Research
page-template-default,page,page-id-15669,page-child,parent-pageid-15672,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,vertical_menu_enabled,side_area_uncovered_from_content,qode-child-theme-ver-1.0.0,qode-theme-ver-17.1,qode-theme-bridge,qode_header_in_grid,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-5.5.5,vc_responsive

Language Research



Words are the building blocks of language, and language is one of the key behaviors that distinguishes us from animals. We know a great deal about when children say their first words. We know much less about how they learn these words. In the last 20 years, advances in the sciences of infant development have allowed us to view the processes of early word learning for the first time.


Historically, language research has focused on how children learn nouns, or names for objects. Obviously, language consists of much more than naming the things we see around us. Language conveys not only what something is but what something is doing; it requires the use of verbs. If you are interested in learning more about language acquisition, please see the presentations below for a general overview of research. You can also click to the left to take a look at some of new language projects and conference presentations.


PAPER: Göksun, T., Hirsh-Pasek, K, & Golinkoff, R. M. (2010). How do preschoolers express cause in gesture and speech? Cognitive Development.


PRESENTATION: Golinkoff, R. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. How babies talk.


PRESENTATION (Nouns): Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R., Hennon, B., & Maguire, M. Breaking the word learning barrier.


PRESENTATION (Verbs): Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. Where actions meet words: The paradox of early verb learning.


PAPER: Göksun, T., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2010). Trading Spaces: Carving Up Events for Learning Language. Perspectives on Psychological Science.


BOOK: Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. M. (2012). How babies talk: Six principles of early language development. In S. Odom, E. Pungello & N. Gardner-Neblett (Eds.), Re-visioning the beginning: The implications of developmental and health science for infant/toddler care and poverty. 77-101.

Verb Research: An Introduction


How We Study Language Learning: Our Paradigm

Much of our language research is conducted using the preferential looking paradigm in which kids watch two pictures or scenes side-by-side, either on a video or a live 3-D format. If they look at one side more than the other, that means that they can tell the difference between the two pictures/scenes, and that tells us what they know.


A paper using this video format: Golinkoff, R., Chung, H., Hirsh-Pasek, K,, Liu, Jing., Bertenthal, B., Brand, R., Maguire,M., & Hennon, E. (2002). Young children can extend motion verbs to point-light displays. Developmental Psychology, 38, 604-615.


A paper using the live 3-D format: Pruden, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Hennon, Golinkoff, R., Hennon, E. (2006). The birth of words: Ten-month-olds learn words through perceptual salience. Child Development, 77, 266-281.


Why Verbs?

Language learning is a predictor of children’s later cognitive functioning, yet nouns have been the myopic focus of language learning, while verbs have been largely ignored. The first studies of verb learning suggest that verb learning occurs later than noun learning, and at a slower rate. We are trying to figure out why verbs are so hard to learn, so that eventually we can make verb learning easier for both normally developing children and children with language disabilities.


Why are Verbs So Hard to Learn?

  1. Actions are ephemeral (short in duration), making a verb referent harder to observe than a noun referent.
  2. Actions look different, are not invariable, and are not stable (my grandmother running and an Olympian running look like two different actions).
  3. Noun meaning is more restrictive than verb meaning. For example, “ball” has two definitions in a dictionary, whereas “run” has 53 definitions.
  4. Any action can have varying components (e.g., manner and path) and any component could be the referent (what the verb is specifically labeling).
  5. Different parts of speech are emphasized differently in different languages. For example, English is a verb-framed language: [Subject…VERB…Agent]. Spanish is an agent-focused language.


Conversations in Action

Conversations with toddlers create rich social contexts, as responsive caregivers build upon children’s interests to sustain interactions. Children draw upon the social context to help them learn new words, using clues such as eye gaze to map an unfamiliar word to its meaning. A key ingredient of the social interaction that builds language is contingency. When we answer children in a prompt way with content that builds on their prior comments, we are responding in a contingent way.


Sometimes, however, these contingent moments are interrupted – for example, a fire truck drives by, diverting attention. With the advent of smart phones, the possibility for emails and photo-sharing jumped from our computers to our pockets and has become a constant source for interruptions. When we pause to respond to our phone instead of one another, we create momentary breaks in an otherwise fluid conversation. By exploring the consequences of interruptions, we can better understand how contingency fosters language development. Our work explores this phenomenon in the context of cell phone interruptions during word learning interactions.

Discriminating Actions


Can children divide events in ways that are language ready? Do they know that one action is different than another? Current research investigates 7- to 21-month-old infants’ ability to discriminate language-relevant components of action, specifically path/manner and figure/ground.


Path/Manner Research

In the path/manner studies, path refers to where an object is moving and manner refers to how that object is moving. In one paradigm we frequently adapt for various studies, children repeatedly see an animated starfish, “Starry,” spinning around a ball. Then they see Starry toe-touching around the ball (a manner change), Starry spinning above the ball (a path change), or Starry toe-touching under the ball (a path and manner change). Infants as young as 7- to 9-months notice changes in Starry’s path or manner.


PAPER: Pulverman, R., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K. Sootsman Buresh, J. (2008). Infants discriminate manners and paths in non-linguistic dynamic events. Cognition, 108, 825-830.


PRESENTATION: Roseberry, S., Göksun, T., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Shallcross, W.L., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2008, March). Where you’re going trumps what you’re doing: Infants prefer paths over manners in dynamic displays. Poster presented at the XVIth International Conference on Infant Studies, Vancouver, Canada.


PAPER: Pulverman, R., Song, L., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2013). Preverbal infants attention to manner and path: Foundations for learning relational terms.  Child Development. 84,1, 241-252


Figure/Ground Research

In figure/ground studies, figure refers to the moving entity performing the action and ground refers to the stationary setting where the action occurs. In these studies, infants were familiarized with a scene that showed a woman crossing a railroad. In figure discrimination, they compared an old event (woman crossing a railroad) with a new event that only changed the figure (e.g., a man crossing a railroad). In ground discrimination, infants saw the same old event paired with a new event that changed only the ground (e.g., woman crossing a street). Infants notice changes in figure before they notice changes in ground. A cross-linguistic study found that 14-month-old English and Japanese-reared infants have similar sensitivities to ground distinctions, but English-reared infants’ sensitivity decreases by 19 months of age. The changes in sensitivity to ground reflect the languages in which these children are immersed. Japanese-reared children may retain their sensitivity to ground distinctions because they are immersed in a language that highlights these distinctions, whereas English does not support ground distinctions.


PAPER: Paper: Göksun, T., Hirsh-Pasek, K, & Golinkoff, R. M. (2009). Processing figures and grounds in dynamic and static events. In J. Chandlee, M. Franchini, S. Lord, & G. Rheiner (Eds.), Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, (pp. 199-210). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.


PRESENTATION 1: Göksun, T., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M. (2008, July). Figure and Ground: Conceptual primitives for processing events. Paper presented in T. Göksun & S. Pruden (chairs), Foundations for learning relational terms: What is in an event. Symposium at the 11th International Congress for the Study of Child Language, Edinburgh, Scotland.


PRESENTATION 2: Göksun, T., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Roseberry, S., Golinkoff, R. M. (2008, March). Processing events and learning relational terms: Figures are more prominent than Grounds. Paper presented in S. Pruden, & T. Göksun (chairs), Conceptual primitives for processing events and learning relational terms. Symposium at the XVIth International Conference on Infant Studies, Vancouver, Canada.

Assigning & Creating Categories


Distinguishing event components is only one part of word learning. Children must also learn categories of actions; for example, that “running” describes both an Olympian and your grandmother when they use their legs in a certain way.


Some of our lab’s recent research investigates 7- to 15-month-old infants’ ability to categorize components of actions, specifically path and manner. We found that 10- to 12-month-old infants are able to form categories for unchanging paths across variable manners as long as a ground object (i.e., the reference object that the figure is moving around, above or under) is present. These findings suggest that infants are attending to the relationship between the path of the figure and the ground object. We also found that infants can form a category of manner at 13 months. This finding is particularly interesting because English is a manner-driven language, so we would expect infants to categorize manner before path.


In a later version of the original categorizational studies, a label (e.g., a nonsense word such as “twilling”) is repeated during the training period to help children recognize that an invariant path or manner (one that is common to four events). We found that the label does help 7- to 9-month-olds categorize paths, but not manners. Even for 10- to 12-month-old infants, labeling manners did not help with categorization.


Children must also learn to categorize event components in more complex ways than captured in these studies. For example, children must learn that “spinning under the ball” is still spinning whether the actor is Starry or a different actor, Tinman. Using the same paradigm as in the other categorization tasks, we find even the youngest infants are able to extend their knowledge to a new actor.




Pruden, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Shallcross, W. L., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2008). Foundations of verb learning: Comparison helps infants abstract event components. In H. Chan, H. Jacob, & E. Kapia (Eds.), Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, Vol 2, pp. 402-414. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.


Pruden, S.M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2006). Foundations of verb learning: Labels promote action category formation. In D. Bamman, T. Magnitskaia & C. Zaller (Eds.), Proceedings of the 30th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp.476-488). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.


Pruden, S.M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Maguire, M.J., & Meyer, M.A. (2004). Foundations of verb learning: Infants form categories of path and manner in motion events. In A. Brugos, L. Micciulla & C.E. Smith (Eds.), Proceedings of the 28th Annual Boston University




Pruden, S., Roseberry, S., Goksun, T. Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.M. (2013) Infant categorization of path relations during dynamic events. Child Development, 84,1, 331-345.


Pruden, S., Göksun, T., Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M. (2012) Find your manners: Infant’s categorization of the manner of motion in dynamic events. Child Development, 977-991.

Attaching Labels to Categories of Action


Our work suggests that children have the conceptual ability to learn verbs but that attaching a label to the concept is very difficult. In a series of experiments we are trying to find out what makes this so hard and whether we can facilitate verb learning.


Verbs are Difficult to Learn

Using the preferential looking paradigm, we did research with Drs. Imai and Haryu (2006) to see whether 3- and 5-year olds could learn verbs better in Asian languages that favor verbs. Children in Japan, the US and China were shown a scene of a woman doing an unfamiliar action with an unfamiliar object. They either heard a label (e.g., “blick“) or a label in syntax (e.g., “Where is the blick?”). Results revealed that children were unable to find the similar verb during the test trials until age 5. At this age, Japanese children could find the verb even with a label, whereas English children required the syntax to find the verb. Interestingly, Chinese children were unable to find the similar verb until 8 years of age.  These results suggest a combination of conceptual readiness along with specific language cues in each language assists in mapping.


The Effect of Linguistic Input on Verb Learning

In related research, we have investigated how children learn a new action label. How much linguistic input do children need to learn a verb? Is labeling the action enough or do children require full syntax to learn verb meaning? To examine the effect of linguistic input on verb learning, 3-year-olds watched an actor performing an action with an object. For example, children saw a woman twisting a broom. Sometimes everything was labeled (e.g. There is Jen.  There is a broom. Wow, sabbing.”), and other times children heard full syntax (e.g., “Look, Jen is sabbing the broom.”). Three-year olds learned the verb meaning in both conditions, but they did better when supplied with full syntax or grammar. A similar effect emerged when children had to extend the new verb to a new person acting on a new object. In fact, 3-year-olds were only better than 2.5 year-olds in the syntax condition.


The Sesame Project

Can children learn verbs from television presentations with high quality stimuli? Here we test children using Sesame clips in “video only” and “video plus live interaction” conditions. In the former, the tapes are designed to optimize verb learning with multiple presentations of the clear action. Children ages 2 and 3 see a novel verb presented on video by Elmo and must demonstrate their knowledge by extending the word to a new video clip of mothers and babies. The television live condition uses these same videos but also includes a brief interaction. With the same language, same tapes and same amount of time on task, we find that children as young as 30- to 35-months can learn verbs as long as they are in the video plus live interaction condition, but are unable to learn these action words from video alone.


In an extension of this study, we explore the possibility that television is a difficult medium for young children because it requires children to represent what they see as a picture as well as a representation of reality. Specifically, we transform the television into a “shrinking machine” for Elmo and his friends. We hope that “shrinking” characters into the machine eliminates the child’s need to represent what they see as a symbol, and allows them to focus instead on Elmo’s actions. This work is in progress.


PAPER: Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Parish-Morris, J., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2009). Live action: Can young children learn verbs from video? Child Development, 80, 1360-1375.


PRESENTATION: Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., & Parish-Morris, J. (2008, March). Educational television? Children’s potential to learn verbs from television. Poster presented at the 16th International Conference on Infant Studies, Vancouver, Canada.

Computerized Assessment


Language is a core ability needed for academic success. Early language knowledge is one of the best predictors of later academic performance. However, preschoolers’ understand of language is largely variable; by age 3, children begin to segregate according to verbal ability. Children with poor communication skills are spoken to less and are more likely to be ignored or excluded by their peers than children with strong communication skills. Therefore, it is important to identify young children who are experiencing language delays. Despite the critical importance of language in the preschool years, a quick and efficient language screener that is reliable, valid, and culturally neutral does not yet exist.


Our lab is currently collaborating with the University of Delaware and Smith College to develop a language screener to fill this need. We have already completed the first round of item testing and are continuing to refine the assessment. We are currently testing the screener on children with normal language development to see what words children know as different ages, as well as how they learn new words. A software company has helped us turn the screener into a computer program that can be used with a touch screen computer. The program is animated, dynamic, and fun for children.


We are also working on a bilingual version of the language screener that will test English-Spanish bilingual children’s language abilities in both of their languages. Bilingual children often initially have smaller vocabularies in each of their languages (since they are simultaneously learning two languages, it understandably takes more time) or develop certain skills in one of their languages before developing it in the other. Due to these differences in language learning, bilingual children are often inaccurately identified as language impaired. We strive to examine abilities in both languages to get a comprehensive picture of their language abilities across both languages

Quality vs. Quantity


Why by age 3 are many low-income children lagging behind their middle-income peers in language development? One widely discussed explanation–the “30-million word gap”– focuses on the quantity of language input: low-income children are behind because they hear substantially fewer words than middle-income children in their first few years of life. Yet, we think that there is more than just a quantity difference and that the quality of early parent-child interaction might play an even bigger role in early language development. With collaborators at Georgia State University, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of Delaware, we are exploring the way that both the quantity of language and the quality of the way parents and their children engage in verbal and non-verbal communication pave the way for young children’s early language success.


Given our findings on the importance of a high quality communication foundation between parents and toddlers, we’re embarking on an exciting project in collaboration with the Maternity Care Coalition (MCC). The MCC is a trusted community partner and Philadelphia’s largest provider of Early Head Start. Together, we are designing a pilot intervention focused on strategies for increasing quality caregiver-child interactions in order to strengthen children’s communication foundation and improve their language outcomes. Our team will develop intervention materials, train advocates and teachers to administer the intervention, and integrate the intervention into MCC’s pre-established home-based and center-based programs. We hope this project will help boost the quality of parent-child interactions and help improve children’s language development over time.