Context and Word Learning: The Strange Case of Deeb

Blog #9 in the Phonology Means Nothing and Other Astounding and Very Practical Facts about Speech Sound Disorders Blog Series

For more information about this series, see the Phonology Means Nothing Series welcome page

By Ken Bleile, PhD
October 14, 2020

Familiar social routines play a central role in helping a young child figure out the meaning of words (Bruner, 1983; Conboy & Kuhl, 2011; Meltzoff, Kuhl, Movelian, & Sejnowski, 2009; Snow & Goldfield, 1983). The following analogy (hopefully!) gives some insights into why familiar social routines matter so much in speech learning.

Picture yourself on a busy street in a far country (I don’t know where, just someplace far away). People are hurrying by, talking and gesturing, cars and buses beeping, lights flashing, displays in gaudy store windows beckoning. People utter streams of sound at one another, gesturing. Maybe someone stops, looks at her companion, waves her arms, and among her stream of noise you hear something that sounds like deeb. You wonder: What does deeb mean? Is it a noun? A verb? Or is it even a word? Or is it part of a word, or several small words?

If learning the meaning of deeb seems hard in such a situation, imagine how much more challenging it would be for an infant. After all, at least you know that language underlies the human noise and that the rushing air contains such things as sentences, words, and speech sounds. Also, you and the other people on the street share a common knowledge about communication, so, though you may not know what their words mean, you know that sound carries meaning and you have some sense of things that people likely talk about. Not so an infant, who has a far less well-developed brain and does not share an adult’s communication knowledge. And remember talk is fast—9 to 13 speech sounds reach an infant’s ear every second, and understanding speech requires interpreting events lasting one third a second.

Finding Deeb

Now imagine a different situation: You are in a grocery store in the same far country, purchasing food. You place your food on the conveyer belt, the clerk rings up the costs, stretches out his hand, and says, deeb. You put money in the clerk’s hand, he takes your money, and returns your change. You then pick up your bags and walk out the door having successfully purchased your groceries because you figured out that deeb means something like Please, pay me.

How did you do it? That is, how did you figure out what deeb means? The answer is that you know the social routines of grocery stores: The customer collects food and brings it to a checkout counter, and the clerk rings it up and then asks for payment. In this way, your knowledge of a familiar social store routine, acquired over many repetitions of the experience, allows you to narrow down the possible meanings of deeb and buy your groceries.

Insights

If that analogy works for you, then you have an insight into the value of familiar social routines in speech learning. Rather than a grocery store, an infant’s routines include mealtime, diaper changing, bedtime, and playtime—all interactions with caregivers that occur over and over, in which an infant hears the same words every day referring to objects and activities that they can see and touch. If bonding motivates a caregiver to raise a child, and if speech input simplifies language for a child, then familiar social routines provide the location where learning speech for communication typically occurs. 

References

Bruner, J. (1983). Child talk: Learning to use language. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Conboy, B., & Kuhl, P. (2011). Impact of second-language experience in infancy: Brain measures of first- and second-language speech perception. Developmental Science, 14, 242–248.

Meltzoff, A., Kuhl, P., Movelian, J., & Sejnowski, T.J. (2009). Foundations for a new science of learning. Science, 17, 284–288.

Snow, C., & Goldfield, B. (1983). Turn the page please: Situation-specific language acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 10, 551–569.