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Posted on Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sandra Waxman, Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology, is concerned with a very big question: What makes us human? The answer, she believes, is linked to language. And the key to understanding language may come from understanding how babies think.

“Language is the signature of the human species and a conduit through which we learn from others and influence their hearts and minds,” says Waxman, who runs Northwestern’s Project on Child Development. “I’m interested in infants’ earliest capacities and how they are tuned by experience.”

In a 2010 study published in the journal Child Development, Waxman and two Northwestern colleagues showed that the cognitive abilities of infants as young as three months are enhanced by hearing language. In the experiment, babies who heard human language instead of beeps while looking at animal pictures were able to put the same animals in a category. Researchers recorded the babies’ eye movements on video to capture their classification abilities.

“Language helps infants develop concepts,” says Waxman, whose work has implications for intervening in developmental delays and disabilities.

Waxman was teaching at Harvard University when Northwestern invited her to give a lecture in Evanston. “I wasn’t looking to make a move,” says Waxman, a New England native, “but the faculty I met here were incredible. They asked great questions and the environment was stimulating.” Not long after her visit, she joined Northwestern’s Department of Psychology.

Celebrated internationally for her scholarship, Waxman has won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011. That same year, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One of her fellow inductees, legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon, performed at the ceremony. “It was truly an amazing moment,” says Waxman.

Also the parent of a recent Northwestern graduate, Waxman says, “My daughter’s time at McCormick [School of Engineering and Applied Science] was incredible. I couldn’t have hoped for a better college experience for her.”

Northwestern’s ascent among the world’s universities has been made possible in part by the groundbreaking research and teaching of its faculty. Recruiting and retaining scholars like Waxman is one of the University’s top priorities. Leadership giving provides Northwestern with the resources necessary to build and maintain a thriving scholarly community where outstanding faculty can pursue their work and mentor students and younger professors.

“Intellectual vibrancy brought me here, and has kept me here,” says Waxman. “Northwestern has consistently provided me with the freedom and resources to explore new avenues of inquiry.”

If you are a parent or grandparent and are interested in learning more about how the infant or young child (up to six years old) in your life thinks, you are invited to bring them to the Project on Child Development on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. For more information, please visit their website or contact them at 847-491-3316 or childdevelopment@northwestern.edu.

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