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The role of multisensory development in early language learning

Gina M Mason, Michael H Goldstein, Jennifer A Schwade
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 2019, 183: 48-64
In typical development, communicative skills such as language emerge from infants' ability to combine multisensory information into cohesive percepts. For example, the act of associating the visual or tactile experience of an object with its spoken name is commonly used as a measure of early word learning, and social attention and speech perception frequently involve integrating both visual and auditory attributes. Early perspectives once regarded perceptual integration as one of infants' primary challenges, whereas recent work suggests that caregivers' social responses contain structured patterns that may facilitate infants' perception of multisensory social cues. In the current review, we discuss the regularities within caregiver feedback that may allow infants to more easily discriminate and learn from social signals. We focus on the statistical regularities that emerge in the moment-by-moment behaviors observed in studies of naturalistic caregiver-infant play. We propose that the spatial form and contingencies of caregivers' responses to infants' looks and prelinguistic vocalizations facilitate communicative and cognitive development. We also explore how individual differences in infants' sensory and motor abilities may reciprocally influence caregivers' response patterns, in turn regulating and constraining the types of social learning opportunities that infants experience across early development. We end by discussing implications for neurodevelopmental conditions affecting both multisensory integration and communication (i.e., autism) and suggest avenues for further research and intervention.


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