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Relevance of the FORGE project

child handing toy

Vocabulary acquisition is essential towards all academic achievements, since all societal, cultural and scientific endeavours are heavily based on the ability to communicate efficiently with others. Despite this, we are far from having full understanding of factors that support vocabulary acquisition in pre-schoolers, an age which precedes the beginning of formal education. As pre-school children learn new words on a daily basis, and because vocabulary is a strong predictor of academic achievement, establishing optimal conditions for learning to occur is critical to any educational setting. It is further critical to implement programmes assisting children with clinical impairments.

Background

child with leaf

To date, embodied approaches to language have highlighted the importance of our everyday motor/visual experiences in supporting vocabulary acquisition (e.g. we learn the meaning of the word ‘walk’ by associating it with a particular action which we have executed ourselves or which we have observed as it was being performed by others). Other studies stress the importance of non-verbal communication (i.e. gestures) during child development in supporting vocabulary growth (e.g. gestures allow reference to an action/object which may or may not be immediately present). Taken together these approaches suggest a link between sensory-motor experiences, gestures and vocabulary acquisition. But how are these related in childhood? One hypothesis is that children’s manipulation of objects promotes their learning of concepts, these concepts are then driving the use of gestures as well as word learning. An alternative hypothesis is that gestures scaffold vocabulary learning because gestures maintain important iconic similarity with the corresponding objects and actions, while having communicative functions like words: thus emergence of gestures would be precursor to word learning. To-date, correlational data seems to better support the first hypothesis, but existing data does not allow to clearly establish the direction of effects.

Our Goal

The FORGE project aims to test between these hypotheses, by answering the following questions:

child grasping paper
  1. What is the role of sensory-motor experiences in learning the corresponding concept and word?
  2. What is the role of sensory-motor experiences in promoting different types of gestures?
  3. Does quality (and quantity) of gestures predict word learning? 

To answer these questions we plan to test approximately 95 typically developing children and 30 adults, using dedicated materials and procedures.