Conversations in Science
for K-12 Educators

A program conceived and organized by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the collaboration of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Edgewood Sonderegger Science Center.

Thursday, December 8, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Language Learning in Infancy

Professor Jenny Saffron
Department of Psychology, UW-Madison

About the conversation:

How infants learn language is one of the enduring mysteries of science. Seemingly overnight, babies go from cooing and babbling to engaging in complex conversations with their caregivers. In my research, we design experiments that allow us to test young infants (6- to 12-months of age), and begin to uncover how they learn language. We have demonstrated that infants are attuned to statistical patterns in language input that help them to discover linguistic structure. In particular, we focus on how infants figure out where words begin and end (given that speech to babies is continuous, without pauses between words), how babies begin to map meanings to those words, and how they learn how words combine to make grammatical sentences. We also study how infants learn about music - another aspect of the environment that is endlessly fascinating to babies - and compare how language and music learning occur during early infancy.

About the speaker:

Jenny Saffran is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her lab at the Waisman Center tests hundreds of babies a year in experiments designed to tap infants' language learning abilities. Professor Saffran has received numerous awards for her research, including early career awards from the American Psychological Association and the International Society for Infant Studies. In 2000, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Clinton.


Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by human infants. Science, 274, 1926-1928.

Saffran, J. R. (2003). Statistical language learning: Mechanisms and constraints. Current Directions in