This summer, Heather Anderson made our department proud by presenting her research on new insights about infants’ auditory environments at the International Congress on Infant Studies (ICIS). Anderson, a doctoral student in the UO Learning Lab, was one of 30 graduate students worldwide to receive the ICIS Graduate Student Travel Award.
Early in her doctoral research, Anderson noticed an intriguing pattern about how infants heard words at home. For some infants, their auditory environment showed signs of regularity, hearing lots of words around the same time day in and day out. The environment of other infants, however, was less predictable, with very little consistency in the chattiest parts of Monday vs. Tuesday vs. Saturday and so on. This difference in predictability raised some important questions about how we make discoveries about infants' early language. One common research method used when scientists aim to discover how language environments matter for development is to compare short samples of audio selected from different infants' experiences. Variation in the auditory environment across days could impact scientists’ ability to meaningfully compare and understand infants’ auditory environments.
In light of this variation, Anderson decided to do a deep dive into the many ways scientists capture and interpret experiences from infants' at-home environments. She took advantage of a set of audio recordings that had captured word quantities across three days at home each from many infants. She then selected four different kinds of samples from each day: 1) the most verbose hour, 2) an hour chosen at random, 3) the hour with the median number of daily words spoken, and 4) an hour constructed from 120 30-second snippets taken from across the day. She then assessed whether each of these methods pointed to the same conclusions about how many words infants hear at home. The 30-second snippet approach turned out to be the most useful in answering important questions. In particular, 30-second snippets allowed Anderson to most accurately estimate all the words an infant heard in three days and also made it so that the particular day of the sample didn't wildly change results. The key to the snippet method's success was that it captured language from throughout an infant's whole day, instead of relying on only one isolated episode, providing a holistic understanding of the infant's auditory environment.
It's important for developmental scientists, policy makers, and caregivers alike to understand if and how at-home experiences matter for development. Anderson's award-winning research brings us a step closer to being able to make accurate inferences about the nature of infants' everyday experiences. Anderson is particularly excited about the potential to accurately quantify word quantities during engaging activities like book reading and singing, which may be part of family routines that scaffold healthy development. Stay tuned for more discoveries from Anderson's upcoming dissertation research!