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Abstract

Parents’ responsiveness to infants’ exploratory and communicative behaviors predicts infant word learning during early periods of language development. We examine the processes that might explain why this association exists. We suggest that responsiveness supports infants’ growing pragmatic understanding that language is a tool that enables intentions to be socially shared. Additionally, several features of responsiveness—namely, its temporal contiguity, contingency, and multimodal and didactic content—facilitate infants’ mapping of words to their referents and, in turn, growth in vocabulary. We close by examining the generalizability of these processes to infants from diverse cultural communities.
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DOI: 10.1177/0963721414522813
2014 23: 121Current Directions in Psychological Science
Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, Yana Kuchirko and Lulu Song
Why Is Infant Language Learning Facilitated by Parental Responsiveness?
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2014, Vol. 23(2) 121 –126
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How do infants transition from prelinguistic babblers to
relatively skilled consumers and users of words and sen-
tences in a span of 2 short years? We share the view with
a history of socio-cultural theorists that language devel-
opment is a collaborative process in which infants con-
struct meaning out of shared activities with members of
their communities, most notably their parents. Infants
communicate their interests through gaze, object explo-
ration, gestures, and vocalizations; parents respond to
these signals with words and actions; and infants benefit
from their parents’ responsiveness by learning words for
the objects and activities that surround them.
Here, we focus on the role of parental responsiveness
in infant language development and thereby contribute
to the view that early word learning is an emergent prod-
uct of cognitive, attentional, and social factors (Hall &
Waxman, 2004; Hollich et al., 2000). Our definition of
responsiveness emphasizes parents’ prompt and contin-
gent replies to infants’ exploratory and communicative
actions (e.g., Bornstein, Tamis-LeMonda, Hahn, & Haynes,
2008). Responses are “prompt” when they follow infant
action within a brief time window, and responses are
“contingent” when they are conceptually dependent on
infant action. We begin by presenting empirical evidence
on the facilitative role of responsiveness for infants’
emerging language. We then ask, “Why do infants benefit
from responsive language partners?” and offer a process-
based understanding of early language development in
social context.
Responsiveness and Early Language
Development
Parents’ responsiveness promotes infants’ communicative
skills well before infants produce conventional words.
For example, researchers have documented real-time
changes in the sophistication of infants’ babbling follow-
ing maternal responsiveness. In one study, infants were
randomly assigned to a contingent-feedback condition
(i.e., mothers were instructed to verbally respond to
their infants’ babbling) or a noncontingent-feedback
condition (i.e., mothers’ verbal input was temporally dis-
sociated from their infants’ babbling; Goldstein &
Schwade, 2008). Infants in the contingent condition mod-
ified their babbling to mirror the phonological structure
522813CDPXXX10.1177/0963721414522813Tamis-LeMonda et al.Parental Responsiveness and Infant Language Learning
research-article2014
Corresponding Author:
Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, 246 Greene St., Room 410W, New York,
NY 10003
E-mail: catherine.tamis-lemonda@nyu.edu
Why Is Infant Language Learning
Facilitated by Parental Responsiveness?
Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda1, Yana Kuchirko1,
and Lulu Song2
1Department of Applied Psychology, New York University, and 2Department of
Early Childhood Education/Art Education, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Abstract
Parents’ responsiveness to infants’ exploratory and communicative behaviors predicts infant word learning during
early periods of language development. We examine the processes that might explain why this association exists. We
suggest that responsiveness supports infants’ growing pragmatic understanding that language is a tool that enables
intentions to be socially shared. Additionally, several features of responsiveness—namely, its temporal contiguity,
contingency, and multimodal and didactic content—facilitate infants’ mapping of words to their referents and, in turn,
growth in vocabulary. We close by examining the generalizability of these processes to infants from diverse cultural
communities.
Keywords
language development, parenting, responsiveness, word learning, infancy
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122 Tamis-LeMonda et al.
of their mothers’ input, whereas infants in the noncontin-
gent condition did not. In another study, mothers’
responses to their 9-month-old, prelinguistic infants’
emotional displays predicted infants’ language at 21
months (Nicely, Tamis-LeMonda, & Bornstein, 1999).
In the second year, when infants begin to understand
and produce words and simple phrases, responsiveness
predicts the sizes of infants’ vocabularies (Tamis-
LeMonda, Bornstein, Kahana-Kalman, Baumwell, &
Cyphers, 1998), the diversity of infants’ communications
(Beckwith & Cohen, 1989), and the timing of language
milestones (Tamis-LeMonda, Bornstein, & Baumwell,
2001; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 1998). Moreover, the magni-
tude of these influences is impressive. In a set of studies,
infants’ vocabulary growth was tracked from 9 to 21
months and mothers’ responsiveness was coded from
video-recorded infant-mother interactions. Infants of
high-responsive mothers (90th percentile) at 9 and 13
months achieved language milestones such as first words,
vocabulary spurt, and combinatorial speech, 4 to 6
months earlier than infants of low-responsive mothers
(10th percentile; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001; Tamis-
LeMonda et al., 1998).
Fathers’ responsiveness also predicts infants’ language
development. In one study, fathers’ responsiveness to
their 2-year-olds predicted children’s communicative
skills. Toddlers of low-responsive fathers were 5 times
more likely to display cognitive delays than were toddlers
of high-responsive fathers (Shannon, Tamis-LeMonda,
London, & Cabrera, 2002). In another study, fathers’
responsiveness to their 2- and 3-year-olds predicted tod-
dlers’ cognitive and language abilities within and across
time, even when controlling for mothers’ responsiveness
(Tamis-LeMonda, Shannon, & Cabrera, 2004).
Moreover, the benefits of responsiveness are not
merely epiphenomena of genetic heritability. Parental
responsiveness relates to the language skills of adopted
children (Stams, Juffer, & van IJzendoorn, 2002), predicts
infant learning under laboratory manipulations (Goldstein,
King, & West, 2003), and enhances children’s language
skills in interventions that target responsiveness (e.g.,
Landry, Smith, Swank, & Guttentag, 2008). What pro-
cesses might account for these associations?
Mechanisms of Influence
Early language development involves growing skills in
pragmatics and semantics. Infants must come to appreci-
ate that language is a tool that enables humans to share
intentions with others (Bruner, 1983); this includes learn-
ing the norms of social discourse, such as when, to
whom, and under what conditions to speak. These early
gains in pragmatics are foundational to semantic devel-
opment, or learning that language “has a sense” and that
words map to referents in the real world (Bruner, 1983).
Responsiveness and pragmatics
Intersubjectivity is a hallmark of mature language (Grice,
1968). It reflects the speaker’s intention to communicate
and the expectation that the listener will take in just the
sense that was intended (Bruner, 1983, 1984). The appre-
ciation of communicative intentionality, or secondary
intersubjectivity (e.g., Rochat & Striano, 1999), emerges
around the end of the first year, and it can be distin-
guished from the primary intersubjectivity evidenced in
the rhythmic turn-taking of infant-mother interactions
during the postnatal period (Trevarthen, 2011) and the
imitative behaviors of neonates (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977).
The distinction between primary and secondary inter-
subjectivity is theoretically important because mecha-
nisms that underlie earlier forms of intersubjectivity may
differ from those that underlie later forms. Thus, although
there has been continued philosophical debate about
whether primary intersubjectivity reflects infants’ “innate”
awareness of self and other (e.g., see Trevarthen, 1979,
for a nativist argument and Welsh, 2006, for counter-
claims), the view here is that interactions with responsive
caregivers facilitate secondary intersubjectivity. That is,
infants do not come to the world equipped with aware-
ness of their own and others’ intentions; they do not
inherently understand that language is a tool for sharing
intentions; and they do not necessarily harbor expecta-
tions that their parents will respond to their behaviors.
Rather, secondary intersubjectivity emerges out of every-
day interactions: Infants act on their worlds, parents
respond, and infants come to understand the intentional-
ity of social interactions (Tamis-LeMonda, Kuchirko, &
Tafuro, 2013).
In turn, infants’ development of secondary intersubjec-
tivity enormously expands possibilities for learning lan-
guage. As infants grow in their appreciation that meanings
are socially shared, they engage in actions that allow
them to capitalize on adult knowledge (Tamis-LeMonda
et al., 2008). They look where adults look, reference
adults in ambiguous situations, and use gestures and
words to share experiences (Tomasello, 1995). These
behaviors are salient to parents, who reliably respond
with descriptions, labels, questions, and action directives
(Bornstein et al., 2008; Karasik, Tamis-LeMonda, &
Adolph, 2013). Thus, parental responsiveness yields ben-
efits for social cognitive skills that support language
learning over time.
Responsiveness and semantics
A major challenge to learning language is figuring out
which words map to which objects or events in the world
(semantic development). This task of referent mapping
requires infants to parse auditory (Saffran, Aslin, &
Newport, 1996) and visual streams (Baldwin, Baird,
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Parental Responsiveness and Infant Language Learning 123
Saylor, & Clark, 2001) into meaningful units, isolate the
relevant object or event in a visually cluttered environ-
ment (Yu, Smith, Shen, Pereira, & Smith, 2009), and
somehow deduce that the visual and auditory events
belong together. Fortunately, language learning is socially
embedded, and three characteristics of responsiveness
increase the odds that infants will learn new words. First,
responsive behaviors are contiguous (temporally con-
nected) and contingent (conceptually dependent) on
infant actions. Second, responsive behaviors are didactic
(informative) and embodied (multimodal). And third,
responsive behaviors are attuned to and scaffold infants’
development. Collectively, these features of responsive-
ness provide a perspective of language development that
unites an information-processing account of word learn-
ing, in which time-locked input facilitates infants’ compu-
tational strategies, with a social-interactive account, in
which children are motivated by, attend to, and benefit
from interactions with attuned, dynamic social partners
(Kuhl, 2007).
Contiguity and contingency. Contiguity and contin-
gency refer to the temporal and conceptual codependen-
cies between infant action and parent response. By
definition, contiguous responses are temporally linked
to infant action. This tight temporal connection is critical
for infant learning, given that the likelihood that two
events will come to be associated depends on their co-
occurrence within a brief time window (Rovee-Collier,
1995). New information encountered after a time win-
dow has closed is not associated with the initial event.
Temporal contiguity is particularly important during early
language development, when infants’ knowledge base is
just beginning to be established.
However, contiguity alone is insufficient for word
learning because infants encounter an abundance of
irrelevant information at any point in time (Yu et al.,
2009). Infants often hear words that are not the target of
their attention—for example, the conversations of people
around them—yet are impressively capable of resolving
referential ambiguity by around the end of the first year
(Smith & Yu, 2008). Psychologists have appealed to sta-
tistical learning models—that is, the idea that infants are
sensitive to the probabilities of specific stimuli (words)
co-occurring with other stimuli (objects and events)—to
explain infants’ exquisite accuracy at word-to-world map-
pings (Smith & Yu, 2008). Infants detect environmental
contingencies early in development (Dunham & Dunham,
1995), possess powerful computational skills to advance
language learning (Kuhl, 2004; Saffran, 2003), and are
continually calculating and updating these likelihoods
across situations (Smith & Yu, 2008; Yu, 2008).
For example, the probability of hearing the word
“apple” in the presence of an apple will be higher than
the likelihood of hearing the word “orange” in the
presence of an apple. Infants as young as 8 months can
rely on statistical regularities to parse words in artificial
and natural languages (Pelucchi, Hay, & Saffran, 2009). In
this regard, responsive language facilitates statistical
learning by heightening the odds that infants will hear
words for the objects and events that are most salient to
them.
Indeed, mothers are more likely to label objects when
infants are looking at those objects than when infants are
looking elsewhere. For example, mothers were assessed
on their responses to their 14-month-olds’ object explora-
tion. Mothers were more likely to use language in response
to infant object exploration (within 3 seconds of infant
action) than in the presence of infant off-task behavior
(Tamis-LeMonda, Kuchirko, & Tafuro, 2013). Similar pat-
terns were seen for mothers’ use of language following
infant gestures and vocalizations (Tamis-LeMonda, Tafuro,
Kuchirko, Song, & Kahana-Kalman, 2013). Infants, in turn,
benefit from contingent language: They are more likely to
learn words for objects that dominate their visual fields
than to learn words that refer to objects during less visually
salient moments (Yu & Smith, 2012).
Didactics and embodiment. Didactics and embodi-
ment characterize the available information contained in
parents’ responses. When parents respond to infants,
they are more likely to use didactic language that labels,
describes, and asks about objects or events than to use
less informative language, such as prohibitions. In one
study, mothers’ verbal responses were coded as referen-
tial (i.e., references to objects or events; e.g., “Pink
bunny”) or regulatory (i.e., statements that direct infants’
actions; e.g., “Sit there”). As expected, mothers’ referen-
tial language increased following infant vocalizations,
gestures, and object exploration, whereas regulatory lan-
guage decreased in the presence of those actions (Tamis-
LeMonda, Kuchirko, & Tafuro, 2013; Tamis-LeMonda,
Tafuro, et al., 2013). Referential language is compara-
tively high in lexical diversity (i.e., number of different
words), which promotes infant vocabulary growth (Song,
Spier, & Tamis-LeMonda, 2013).
Parents’ responses are embodied in that parents reply
to infant behaviors with multimodal input; they naturally
coordinate verbal and physical cues—for example, by
simultaneously labeling, looking to, and touching or
pointing to objects following infant object engagement
(Tamis-LeMonda, Kuchirko, & Tafuro, 2013). Moreover,
mothers are more likely to coordinate physical cues of
reference with didactic language than with regulatory
language in response to infants’ exploratory or commu-
nicative actions. In turn, infants are able to capitalize
on nonspeech contextual information when learning
words (Yu, Ballard, & Aslin, 2005). Body movements,
gesture, exaggerated actions (termed motionese; Brand
& Shallcross, 2008), and prosodic features of speech
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124 Tamis-LeMonda et al.
(Fernald & Mazzie, 1991) are associated with heightened
infant attention and learning. Thus, infants’ everyday
behaviors elicit parental responses that are rich in con-
tent and paired with physical behaviors that signal the
targets of talk.
Scaffolding. Scaffolding refers to parents’ modifications
of responses in line with infants’ learning and develop-
ment. The value of any given response depends on the
skill level of the child it is directed toward. For example,
contingent labeling (“Ball!”) will yield greater benefit to
an infant who does not know the word “ball” than to one
with a relatively large vocabulary. Indeed, parents attune
to the changing skills of their infants.
In one study, mothers responded with simple labels
and descriptions to the vocalizations of their 1-year olds,
but increased their responsive questions across the sec-
ond year as their infants became more skilled at language
(Bornstein et al., 2008). Mothers also shifted from
responding to simple object exploration at 9 months to
responding to sophisticated forms of object play at later
ages. Mothers are more likely to respond to novel words
spoken by their 2-year-olds than to words that their
infants have spoken for some time (Masur, 1997). Mothers
increase their referential responses to infant vocalizations
when their infants are between the ages of 14 and 24
months but decrease their responses to their infants’ ges-
tures (Tamis-LeMonda, Tafuro, et al., 2013). Finally, moth-
ers of crawling infants respond differently to the social
bids of their 13-month-olds than do mothers of walking
infants, largely because the two groups of infants bid in
different ways: Crawling infants predominantly bid from
stationary positions (e.g., while sitting), whereas walking
infants bid from stationary positions but also frequently
carry objects over to mothers (Karasik, Tamis-LeMonda,
& Adolph, 2011). Mothers, in turn, respond to stationary
bids with noun phrases (e.g., “Book!”) but to moving bids
with predicate phrases (e.g., “Want to read?”; Karasik
et al., 2013). Collectively, these studies indicate that par-
ents “up the ante” by responding in new ways to emerg-
ing skills in infants.
The Cultural Context
Responsiveness is observed in parents around the world.
Moreover, although parents from different cultural com-
munities might differ in how often they respond to their
infants, there is evidence that when they do respond, the
characteristic features of responsiveness (continuity, con-
tingency, and embodiment) are universal.
Nonetheless, parental responsiveness is culturally
embedded. Thus, parents’ views and socialization goals
and the larger socio-cultural context shape which behav-
iors parents respond to and how they respond. These
cultural variations might reflect differences in parents’
accommodations to infant communication and in the
salience of different infant signals to parents (Ochs &
Schieffelin, 1984; Tamis-LeMonda & Song, 2012).
For example, Japanese and U.S. mothers differ in how
often they respond to the gazes, smiles, and vocalizations
of their 3-month-olds (Fogel, Toda, & Kawai, 1988). In a
study of six cultural communities, mothers from Berlin
and Los Angeles were more likely to respond to infant
nondistress vocalizations and gazes than were mothers
from Beijing and Delhi and Nso mothers from various
cities in Cameroon (Kärtner et al., 2008). In contrast, Nso
mothers responded more often to infant touch than did
mothers from other cultures. In another study, U.S. moth-
ers responded to infant object play more than social play,
whereas Japanese mothers responded more to social
play (Tamis-LeMonda, Bornstein, Cyphers, Toda, &
Ogino, 1992). In a study of mothers from New York City,
Mexican immigrant mothers were more likely to respond
to their 14-month-olds’ gestures with referential language
than were Dominican or African American mothers
(Tamis-Lemonda, Tafuro, et al., 2013). Again, however, in
the context of these differences, mothers from all cultural
communities displayed contiguity, contingency, and
embodiment in their responses.
Parents from different cultural communities also differ
in their types of responses. Mothers of 5-month-olds from
France, Japan, and the United States differed in their
extradyadic (directing infant attention to the environ-
ment) and dyadic (directing attention to mother)
responses. The U.S. mothers were more extradyadic in
their responsiveness than were French and Japanese
mothers, whereas Japanese mothers were more dyadic in
their responsiveness than were other mothers (Bornstein
et al., 1992). These patterns of responding may reflect
different cultural emphases on self-guided exploration
(extradyadic) versus connection to others (dyadic).
Nonetheless, differences in types of responsiveness
across communities do not imply differences in the asso-
ciations between responsiveness and infant learning,
because averages are statistically independent of correla-
tions. In fact, the value of parental responsiveness
for children’s language development generalizes across
families from different cultural communities and socio-
economic strata (Rodriguez & Tamis-LeMonda, 2011;
Shannon et al., 2002; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001; Tamis-
LeMonda et al., 2004), suggesting universality in social-
learning processes.
Conclusions
Responsiveness is a common characteristic of parenting
around the world, and its benefits extend to children
from families that differ in genetic relatedness, socio-
cultural beliefs and practices, and income strata. In this
essay, we have proposed various mechanisms through
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Parental Responsiveness and Infant Language Learning 125
which responsiveness facilitates infants’ language devel-
opment. Responsiveness feeds into infants’ pragmatic
understanding that meanings can be shared. The tempo-
ral characteristics of responsiveness—namely, its contigu-
ity and contingency—increase the likelihood that the
words infants hear will be bound to their real-world ref-
erents. The didactic and embodied content of responsive-
ness means that infants are the serendipitous beneficiaries
of lexically rich, multimodal input that marks topics of
conversation. Finally, responsiveness is embedded in
reciprocal feedback loops: Parents scaffold infant learn-
ing by adapting their language and behaviors to accom-
modate the developing skills of their infants.
Recommended Reading
Davis, D., & Cynthia Logsdon, M. (Eds.). (2011), Maternal
sensitivity: A critical review for practitioners. Hauppauge,
NY: Nova Science Publishers. A clearly written, compre-
hensive edited volume that contains chapters on research
conducted on maternal responsiveness (often referred to as
sensitivity) from leading scholars in the field.
Eshel, N., Daelmans, B., Cabral de Mello, M., & Martines, J.
(2006). Responsive parenting: Interventions and outcomes.
Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 84, 992–999. A
reader-friendly review of studies on interventions in devel-
oped and developing countries that have targeted respon-
siveness and improved various health outcomes in children.
Landry, S. E., Smith, P. R., & Swank, K. E. (2006). Responsive
parenting: Establishing early foundations for social, com-
munication, and independent problem-solving skills.
Developmental Psychology, 42, 627–642. A clearly written
study conducted with mothers of full-term and preterm
infants that demonstrates the effectiveness of responsive-
ness interventions for children’s development across a
range of areas.
Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., & Bornstein, M. (2002). Maternal respon-
siveness and early language acquisition. In Reese & L. Kail
(Eds.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol.
29, pp. 89–127). A comprehensive chapter on the role of
responsiveness in language development.
Acknowledgments
We are grateful to the hundreds of mothers and children who
have participated in our research over the years.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
Funding
We acknowledge funding from National Science Foundation
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Developmental
and Learning Sciences, Grant 021859 and National Science
Foundation Integrative Research Activities for Developmental
Science Grant 0721383.
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