Dr Suzanne Aussems

Research interests

Word Learning

I study a variety of learning strategies that young children and adults use to acquire a sizeable lexicon. These strategies involve statistical learning mechanisms that help them to cope with visual input, and following social cues such as gestures to determine the correct referent for a novel word. Through experimental research with infants, preschoolers, and adults I aim to provide insight in how such language strategies may complement each other. Using implicit measures such as eye gaze, I investigate language learning even in younger infants. The goal of my research is to identify (nonverbal) factors that facilitate word learning in children between ages 0-4, and use this knowledge to develop a better understanding of word learning mechanisms in general. Ultimately, I would like to develop interventions that can boost children's vocabulary development and language skills in the early years, preparing them for school entry, and minimising the risk of them falling behind at a later age.

Gesture

I am interested in the iconic co-speech gestures that adults produce, and how these gestures can help children solve difficult tasks. Through experimental research, I investigate the mechanisms that underlie the beneficial effects of seeing iconic gestures on 3-4-year-old children's performance in memory- and language-related tasks. I also study pointing gestures in pre-verbal infants and preschool-aged children. For example, I investigate how infants use pointing and eye gaze to communicate their desire to an adult communication partner, and how infants' nonverbal behaviour may reveal what they know about their communication partner's knowledge states. In the preschool years, I look at how children produce pointing gestures in two-alternative forced choice word learning tasks and what these gestures can tell us about the strategy that children employ to solve the task, and how confident they are about their answers.

Evolution of Communication

I am currently working on an ESRC-funded project called "the role of gesture in language development and evolution". One of the most fascinating questions I often think about is how human communication evolved? Language is a uniquely human communication system which has not evolved in any to other species. However, language is just one part of the story; we also communicate nonverbally using body language and gesture. Remarkably, our closest evolutionary relatives, great apes, gesture flexibly too despite not having a language system. I believe that gesture plays a significant role in the story of how human communication developed and evolved over time. In my future research, I would like to further investigate this topic by analyzing the gestural communication system of humans and chimpanzees. By systematically comparing the gestures of humans and great apes, I aim to better understand the role gesture plays in communication development and evolution. 

Affiliations

Royal Holloway Baby Lab

I am currently working as a Postdoctoral Researcher in Developmental Psychology in the Royal Holloway Baby Lab. In collaboration with Dr Jeanne Shinskey and Dr Jessie Ricketts, I investigate whether infants learn words from educational picture books. The Baby Books Project, which we launched in October 2019, will run until the end of September 2022.  If you are interested in following updates on this project, please follow our Twitter account @BabyBooksProj.

Baby Books Project 

Do babies learn words from ‘first words’ picture books? One would expect this question to have been researched extensively, given the known benefits of reading to pre-schoolers for language learning. However, there is surprisingly little research on reading to babies. Babies may struggle to learn from picture books because they have immature symbolic insight – understanding that a picture (e.g., of a frog) symbolises a real-world thing. Some picture-book features may undermine babies’ learning by hampering this insight.

We will investigate whether babies learn words from picture books in a highly systematic yet naturalistic way, using commercial ‘first words’ picture books. Parents will read the books to their babies at home for 6 weeks. Before and after this, we will measure babies’ receptive vocabulary (words they understand) by having parents complete checklists and babies point at pictures and objects (‘Where is ____?’).

We will test two novel hypotheses, motivated by past research on picture-based learning. First, babies should learn more from books with photos than books with drawings, because pictures that resemble their referents most faithfully should facilitate symbolic insight. Second, babies should learn less from touch-and-feel books than plain books, because tactile features should hinder symbolic insight by increasing babies’ bias to regard books as concrete toys.

The findings will yield substantial theoretical advances in our understanding about babies’ symbolic insight. Practically, the project will clarify which picture-book features promote babies’ learning, with implications for those who design educational picture books (publishers), and those who choose them (parents, practitioners, librarians).

 

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