Sho Tsuji’s research investigates the mechanisms behind young children’s amazing capacity to acquire language fast and efficiently in diverse environments. Drawing on observational, experimental, and interventional methods, she focuses on the role of the linguistic environment and social context, especially the role of the interactive nature of social situations, for advancing learning. Observational study of infants’ socio-communicative environment provides a detailed account of the cues available to infants; lab experiments probe infants’ sensitivity to such cues; and intervention studies assess the causal effect and practical impact of enriching teaching contexts with such cues.
My plans for the fellowship period
Language acquisition is both potent and fragile: Normally developing babies learn language at a speed unrivaled by any machine, but early adversity can dramatically affect early acquisition. The social-communicative environment is considered key for early language learning; however, the field still lacks an understanding of the precise content, pathways, and mechanisms through which it enhances learning. As a Jacobs Research Fellow, I aim, first, to characterize, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the features of infants’ early environments across various cultural contexts that are relevant for learning. To this end, I will use multimodal recordings of infants’ naturalistic environments as well as of targeted interactive play sessions and link them to language outcomes. I will, second, probe the role of specific features by experimental study using interactive virtual agents. Third, the insights from the first phases will be implemented in an intervention targeted at improving child language outcomes by training daycare personnel on their social-communicative interaction behavior. These complementary strands of research will inform novel theory development to explain and predict language acquisition across cultural, linguistic, and societal variation, an urgent need in order to inform educators and policy makers on the critical factors mitigating better, more equal learning conditions.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Children’s early language skills are the single best predictor for later academic success, and despite infants’ amazing capacities to acquire their first language, developing language skills show large inter-individual variation. My research will contribute to a more mechanistic understanding of the environmental risk factors for this individual variation. The focus on multiple cultural contexts will further allow for generalizable, as well as specific, insights into the variable role of social environments.
Furthermore, the quantitative focus for measuring variability in social-communicative learning contexts will inform novel forms of digital educational tools.
Ultimately, I hope that my research will lead to tangible insights, specific recommendations, and targeted tools for enriching early language learning experiences for both caregivers and policy makers.