Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Language Lab

There are some very odd pros to living just down the street from Purdue. In addition to the normal benefits to a college town--attracting major entertainers, having excellent ethnic restaurants, getting to check your brakes more often when the college kids jay-walk in the path of your oncoming car--we are also blessed to know that we make a difference in scientific research. That's right, LO has been a human test subject. Twice.

It started back in November, when we received a letter from Purdue's infant language department. They must comb the newspaper birth notices to get the names of new parents to invite them to start experimenting on their children. Since they were studying how little ones learn and process language--which I am fascinated by--I called and said "Sign us up!"

Our first experiment was back in January. I came to Purdue with LO in tow, and answered a very long survey about things we do at home. Then they led us into a room with lights on three walls, had LO sit in my lap, gave me noise-cancelling headphones, and played something for LO to listen to while they flashed lights at him. It was kind of bizarre. After we left the study room, they told me that they were testing to see at what age infants stop recognizing sounds outside of their native language. They had been playing French phonemes for LO. As soon as they said that, I knew that our time there had been for naught. I speak French to LO. I generally tend to natter in French to him when he's crying, which worries me that he'll associate the language of love with sobbing, but the child hears French on a regular basis and so he would probably be disqualified from the study, if I know anything about how these things are conducted. Doh!

Last week, Purdue called and asked if I would be willing to bring him back again. It's probably fairly difficult to find willing participants, and I told them I'd be happy to come back. This time, LO sat on my lap and watched a screen flash images--of a smiling baby, of a bullseye, of a spinning toy--while they played something for him to listen to. Again, I had the noise-cancelling headphones. After less than five minutes, they ended the session. The researcher told me that it was a two part study and could I bring him back later this week?

Hmm. Due to my recent addiction to sociology books, I know that sometimes the trappings of the study are just the pretense to do the real experiment in the waiting room. I also know that it was unlike them to wait to mention the second part of the study until after all was said and done. Up until now, they have been very polite, solicitous of our time, and business-like. So either they're really conducting an experiment to see how often they can get stir-crazy new mothers to drive to Purdue during the late winter warmup, or they slipped LO some sort of slow acting language serum on Tuesday and need to test its efficacy on Friday. Either way, we get another free board book out of the endeavor.

I do think I'll probably say yes if they ask me to bring him again. I hope it will translate into some sort of tuition reduction for LO in 18 years, should he choose to go to Purdue. Because you really should get something for being a human experiment.


  1. I was always trying to figure out psychological experiments when I subjected myself to them in college. Maybe they are trying to see how much you will let them tell your kid, while you can't hear and how he reacts to you the next time or something.

  2. Lil has been a regular participant in the OSU language learning lab! For us, it's a good excuse to go look for brutus - I totally hear you on the stir crazy mama thing!

  3. Saying "yes" to being in a research project got us Isaac's insanely early autism diagnosis and subsequent early therapies - I thank God for Florida State daily.
    And no worries on the French phonemes - I was actually reading about this in a speech and language development case study the other day (yes, I am a dork...) - since you're not a native speaker, you don't speak with French phonemes. You can't hear them anymore! Babies are born hearing all the possible sound combinations from all languages, and lose that ability at around 6 months - then they only hear their native language's sounds, and start to babble with an accent, even.