Dr Hana D’Souza explores how bilingual babies make sense of the world

Infants are born into all kinds of different environments, and each environment poses its own unique set of challenges. For example, in monolingual homes, infants hear lots of different words in one language. In bilingual homes, however, some of these words might be in a different language, or even in several different languages. Bilingual homes may therefore provide a less predictable environment to learn in than monolingual homes. How might infants adapt to this?

Newnham’s Dr Hana D’Souza is a developmental psychologist whose work focuses on how children learn. She’s particularly interested in the parallel development of attention and motor abilities. Hana believes that children’s attention, motor abilities and language abilities develop in a complex network of interactions. She’s seeking to understand how this works, and to support parents whose children have additional needs.

“children’s attention, motor abilities and language abilities develop in a complex network of interactions”

As part of the Cambridge Babylab, Hana relies on a UK-wide network of volunteers, who bring their ‘little scientists’ to take part in studies on psychology and development. As the parents and babies play games, the team can track their eye movements using sophisticated technology. The photo above shows, Jasmine, a little scientist wearing head-mounted eye-tracking technology to help researchers discover how children with Williams syndrome learn.

Hana’s most recent publication is on bilingualism (Royal Society Open Science, 7, 180191). The research group found that infants raised in bilingual homes switch attention faster and more frequently than infants raised in monolingual homes. Over one hundred 7- to 9-month-olds watched pictures on a screen and eye tracking technology was used to record where they were looking. When shown two pictures side by side, infants from bilingual homes shifted attention from one picture to another more frequently than infants from monolingual homes. When a new picture appeared on the screen, they were also faster at redirecting their attention towards the new picture. More and faster attention switching could be an adaptation which enables infants to collect more information in order to navigate more complex environments.

However, Hana’s key research interest is in infants and toddlers with neurodevelopmental disorders of known genetic origin, such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Williams syndrome. She hopes that, by better understanding their experience of the world, and how parents interact with their children, we may be able to identify the best ways to support children’s learning.

“In a world filled with objects and experiences, how is a child able to learn what any one word refers to?”

In a world filled with objects and experiences, how is a child able to learn what any one word refers to? And yet we all clearly do. Hana argues that part of the solution is to think about a young child’s experience of a world. When a baby or toddler holds something in their hand, it is so close that the object takes up most of their field of vision. The result is that, at that moment, it is much easier for a baby to associate a word with that specific object. Of course, this isn’t the only way in which children learn language, but it’s a good example of these interactions between developing abilities.

Hana explains, “We are interested in how attentional and motor skills in young children affect learning in everyday settings, such as play between parent and child. This is important to understand, because children with various genetic syndromes often present with attentional and motor difficulties early in development.”

“our research could inform future interventions for children with neurodevelopmental disorders”

Working with babies and toddlers is never easy research, she says, and she’s grateful for the many parents who travel to Cambridge to take part. However, Hana believes their work could be hugely valuable. Looking forward to the future, “We believe our research could inform future interventions for children with neurodevelopmental disorders and help us to advise parents and teachers on how to best support children’s learning.”

Dr Hana D’Souza is the Beatrice Mary Dale Research Fellow at Newnham College, and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge. She is also an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London.

Would you like to find out more about Hana’s research and the Cambridge Babylab? Do you have a ‘little scientist’ who might like to help?

  • Website: https://www.babylab.psychol.cam.ac.uk/
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