Talk That Baby Talk: NYU Professor Lectures on Speech Psychology

Many may not know this but infants have the ability to understand speech almost as soon as they’re born.

New York University (NYU) assistant professor of psychology Dr. Athena Vouloumanos kicked off the Cognitive Science Colloquium Series about developmental research with a speech titled “Speech: A Signal for Communication?” on Friday, Oct. 14 in the Lecture Center.

Her lecture encompassed the research and experiments she conducted on infants and their reaction to speech and sound in the very early stages of their lives.

Vouloumanos became interested in cognitive speech in babies after she graduated from McGill University, located in Montreal, Quebec, with a bachelor of science degree in biology. She learned that it wasn’t biology that interested her.

“I loved reading biology, but I didn’t want to do biology,” Vouloumanos said. “It turned out that I didn’t care about molecules, but I cared about its behavior. I discovered after I graduated with a degree in biology that that was psychology.”

She was accepted to medical school and received a graduate fellowship, but deferred medical school because it gave her a weird feeling in her stomach.

A month before she was supposed to start medical school, Vouloumanos contacted Janet Werker, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, and asked if she was looking for any Ph.D. students for the fall semester. Werker accepted Vouloumanos and UBC became the school from where she received her Ph.D. in neuroscience.

During the lecture, Vouloumanos explained some of the experiments she did using actors and infants. In one project she had actors make sounds, such as “xhm” which translates to clearing your throat — the sound indicated to pick up an object and Vouloumanos observed the reaction of the infant. She came to the conclusion that “young infants prefer listening to speech compared to non-speech sounds.”

Assistant psychology professor Dr. Sarah Shuwairi was a student of Vouloumanos when she was attending NYU for graduate school in 2008. She invited Vouloumanos to speak about her research on speech perception in infancy and the ability to communicate.

Shuwairi remains interested in Vouloumanos’s research and incorporates it in her Seminar in Infant Development class. She thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and recently discussed a paper Vouloumanos wrote about speech being special in newborns.

“[Vouloumanos] demonstrated that the presence of speech bias in the newborn has these long-term effects. So, infants who were stronger in the speech perception bias at the earliest stage, like in zero or one-day-olds, were better on other communication tasks later,” Shuwairi said.

Sam Han, a fourth-year psychology major, attended the event because it sounded interesting and wanted to receive subject pool credits for his major. He liked how Vouloumanos presented the lecture with her knowledge and enthusiasm.

“I learned that babies are able to pick up on communication from a very young age,” Han said. “Vouloumanos was very concise and it was a lecture worthwhile going to.”