Language and Space: Representation and Learning

We study how children and adults develop and use knowledge of the spatial world around them, how they learn language, and how their knowledge of space and language interact. To understand the cognitive and brain bases for these abilities, we study not only typically developing children and adults, but also people with congenital and acquired neurological disorders such as Williams syndrome and amnesia in adulthood. We use a variety of methods, including traditional experimental methods from cognitive and developmental psychology, linguistic analysis, and brain imaging. Current projects include:

  • Spatial cognition and block building: Can the way children build with blocks help us understand how they think about the world?
  • Spatial language: Cross-linguistic variation and first language learning
  • Spatial information and word learning: Understanding language delay in Williams syndrome
  • Navigation after disorientation in children and adults with Williams syndrome
  • Space, language, art, and brain: How an amnesic artist can help us understand the role of the hippocampus in memory and learning
  • Language and thought: Does language change the way we think?

Spatial Cognition and Block Building

Spatial cognition refers to a set of skills that we use every day to think about objects moving in the world, the relationship between objects in space and the way we navigate through the world. Spatial cognition, especially early in development, predicts later spatial and mathematical skills, especially those related to the disciplines of science, technology, mathematics and education (STEM) fields. We use block-building, an accessible skill for young children,  as a window into understanding how this complex spatial skill develops, how it is linked to academic learning more generally and how it can be nurtured, moving children from “novice” to “expert” builders. See this video to learn more!

We’re currently recruiting children to participate in this study!

Read more:
Cortesa et al. (2017): Characterizing spatial construction processes: Toward computational tools to understand cognition.
Cortesa et al. (2018): Constraints and Development in Children’s Block Construction.

Spatial Language

Although languages have many different ways of expressing spatial relationships, we hypothesize that there are deep similarities as well, and that these “universals” reflect the structure of human spatial concepts. We collect productions and judgments from adult speakers to find out how particular spatial relationships are expressed across a range of different languages. We also track how children use spatial expressions across development: when they learn particular expressions (e.g. ‘in’ and ‘on’), and how the range of expressions available to them affects how they choose to describe different spatial relationships. Along with traditional experimental methods, we use statistical modeling techniques to capture cross-linguistic variation and developmental changes.

Read more:
Ferrara et al. (2013). Adapting descriptions of spatial relationships: Parent’s tuning to children’s knowledge. Poster at Cog Sci, Berlin.

Spatial Information and Word Learning

Typically developing children are able to take advantage of spatial cues to learn words during social interactions. For example, if Mom points to a furry four-legged animal and says, “Look, a dog!”, a typical infant can follow her point and infer that the animal is called a dog. Children with Williams syndrome may have difficulty following points because of their spatial impairments. We’re pursuing the hypothesis that at least some of the language delay in Williams syndrome should be attributed to difficulty using spatial cues to determine the referents of words in social interactions. If that’s the case, then we want to know whether their vocabularies eventually start growing because they overcome their difficulty following points, or because they rely on other strategies to infer the referents of new words.

Spatial Navigation and Reorientation

For over 15 years, we have studied spatial abilities in children and adults with Williams syndrome (WS), a rare genetic deficit associated with the deletion of 25 genes on chromosome 7, presenting with severe spatial impairment. Our current projects focus on the brain and cognitive bases for oriented navigation and navigation under disorientation. Recent work in our lab shows that people with WS have severe deficits in the ability to reorient themselves after disorientation. We are now working to better understand this deficit and its brain bases.

We’re currently recruiting children to participate in this study!

Read more:
Landau & Hoffman (2012). Spatial representation: From gene to mind.
Lakusta, Dessalegn, & Landau (2010). Impaired geometric reorientation caused by genetic defect.

Space, Language, Art, and Brain

A case study of a profoundly amnesic patient is helping us understand brain-cognition relationships in basic learning and memory processes. LSJ was a highly successful professional illustrator, accomplished amateur violist, and private pilot before viral encephalitis destroyed most of her hippocampus. Given the importance of the hippocampus in memory and learning, this case affords an opportunity for us to understand what cognitive functions can be achieved without an intact hippocampus, and what kinds of new functions might develop to compensate for losses. LSJ’s unique background also allows us to address novel questions about memory and learning for general world knowledge, including in areas of expertise.

Read more:
This work has been covered in Time Magazine, The Academic Minute, the New York Times, and NPR’s All Things Considered. It was also the subject of a focus exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, September 2011.

Language and Thought

Our studies of language and space shed light on classic questions about the relationship between language and thought. Does the language you learn affect the way you think? We think not, and provide a range of evidence and arguments in several papers.

Read more:
Dessalegn & Landau (2013) Interaction between language and vision: It’s momentary, abstract, and it develops.
Landau, Dessalegn, & Goldberg (2010). Language and space: Momentary interactions.
Dessalegn & Landau (2008). More than meets the eye: The role of language in binding visual properties.
Munnich & Landau (2003). The effect of spatial language on spatial representations: Setting some boundaries.

We are also interested in how children learn and use words to report on their perceptual and mental experiences – words like “see”, “hear” and “look” and also “think”, “know” and “guess”.  Both types of words describe people’s internal states, but they seem quite different. We are interested in how the two types of words are acquired, how their meanings might be different for children than adults, and the circumstances under which each type is used.