When Alissa Ferry was a student at Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, she and her classmates wrote biographies describing what they thought they’d be doing 25 years in the future.
“Mine was actually pretty accurate,” said Ferry, who came across her prediction on a recent visit to her hometown. “I wrote that I would have a PhD and work as a child psychologist. I ended up pretty close to that.
At 30, Ferry isn’t quite ready for that 25th-anniversary reunion yet, but her enthusiasm for science — an interest she credits Meyers science faculty for fostering — continues to grow.
A graduate of Northwestern University in Chicago, she is a post-doctoral researcher in the field of language acquisition at the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati in Trieste, Italy. There she recently designed an experiment that tested babies’ reactions to pictures of dinosaurs and fish accompanied either by the shrieks of lemurs, the sound of a human voice or a beeping sound.
The Times Leader recently had a chance to interview Ferry, who is the daughter of Charlotte Ferry and the late Gerald Ferry of Wilkes-Barre, about her research. Here are her answers to our questions.
TL: Were you actually working with lemurs, or did you just have recordings of the sounds they made?
AF: Unfortunately, no! I just used recordings that came from lemurs at the Duke University Lemur Center. I only worked hands on with the babies.
TL: Is it safe to say your research supported the idea that children at 3 or 4 months old respond to lemur sounds the same way they respond to human speech? Then at 6 months they don’t respond to the lemurs but they still do respond to human speech?
AF: In some ways, yes. In the context of this experiment, I was looking to see the very start of the link between language and thinking. We know that language and thinking are really intertwined in adults. Imagine trying to think without using your inner voice. It’s really difficult.
But at the same time, we don’t really know much about why they are linked or how they are linked. I designed an experiment to see if language can help tiny babies think. In particular, I looked to see if language can help them in a really simple type of task, forming object categories and then I looked to see if other sounds also helped them form categories and how it changed throughout the first year.
TL: Were you using pictures of dinosaurs, to see if the children responded to them?
AF: Yes. We wanted to see if language helps babies form categories and so we looked at how well they form categories of animals, including dinosaurs for some babies, fish for other babies.
TL: If the children recognized the animals, how could you tell?
AF: Babies, it turns out, are really not very good at answering questions! So doing experiments with them can be a little bit difficult. One thing that babies are really good at is looking at things that they find interesting. And at the same time, they tend to get bored very quickly. If you give a baby a toy, they’ll generally play with it for a little while and then lose interest and look for something else to hold their attention. So, we use this to our advantage.
What we do here is we show the babies eight different kinds of dinosaurs on a screen. They’re all different kinds and colors, but they all fall under the general category of dinosaur. We show them one dinosaur on the screen and generally they’re quite interested and they’ll look for a long time. Then a second, and a third, and so on. Generally, they start to lose interest.
By the time we get to the eighth dinosaur, they’re really bored with dinosaurs. Then, we change it up. We show them two things on the screen. On one side is a brand new dinosaur and on the other side is a fish. Both items are new, they haven’t seen any of them before. But, if they formed the dinosaur category, the new dinosaur should be pretty boring since they already saw tight dinosaurs in a row. But, the new fish is way more interesting because they didn’t see any yet. In this case the babies would look longer to the fish.
But, if they didn’t form a category, both the new dinosaur and the new fish are equally interesting and they spend about the same time looking at both.
Essentially what we find is that when you pair each of the dinosaurs with language, the babies form the category at 3-, 4-, and 6- months. If you pair them with beeping tones, no age forms the dinosaur category. If you pair them with other kinds of complex sounds that are speech-like, such as speech played in reverse, they again do not form the category at any age.
But, if you pair it with the lemur calls, the 3-month-olds and the 4-month-olds DO form a category but the 6-month-olds do not. This was really interesting because it suggests that the 3-month-olds and the 4-month-olds were getting some sort of cognitive boost from the lemur calls as well. It’s also really interesting because by 6 months the lemur calls don’t work anymore, only the human speech is can give the cognitive boost
This really changes the way we think about how language and thinking are linked. I looked in very young babies to see how this link develops and in very young babies, the link is not specific to human speech, but it does become specific to speech by 6 months.
TL: What brought you to Italy for your research?
AF: I came to Italy for several reasons. I wanted to continue studying how babies learn language and I was invited to work at one of the best labs in the world for studying language acquisition, here in Italy. Now I’m working with a range of ages from newborns through 2 years to track how different aspects of language develop and how the brains of babies process language.
A second reason is that I’m also interested in how the different languages might be learned differently. For example, Italian has a different rhythmic patterns and different ways of putting words together than we do in English. I’m interested in understanding how babies pick up on the patterns specific to their language.
A third reason is that the university is located in an Italian city on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, how could I turn down an offer to live and work here?