Human language, a signature of our species, derives its power from its links to human cognition. For centuries, scholars have been captivated by this link between language and cognition. In this article, we shift this focus. Adopting a developmental lens, we review recent evidence that sheds light on the origin and developmental unfolding of the link between language and cognition in the first year of life. This evidence, which reveals the joint contributions of infants’ innate capacities and their sensitivity to experience, highlights how a precocious link between language and cognition advances infants beyond their initial perceptual and conceptual capacities. The evidence also identifies the conceptual advantages this link brings to human infants. By tracing the emergence of a language–cognition link in infancy, this article reveals a dynamic developmental cascade in infants’ first year, with each developmental advance providing a foundation for subsequent advances.


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...


Literature Cited

  1. Ackermann H, Hage SR, Ziegler W. 2014. Brain mechanisms of acoustic communication in humans and nonhuman primates: an evolutionary perspective. Behav. Brain Sci. 37:529–604 [Google Scholar]
  2. Aguiar A, Baillargeon R. 1999. 2.5-month-old infants’ reasoning about when objects should and should not be occluded. Cogn. Psychol. 39:116–57 [Google Scholar]
  3. Althaus N, Plunkett K. 2016. Categorization in infancy: Labeling induces a persisting focus on commonalities. Dev. Sci. 19:5770–80 [Google Scholar]
  4. Aslin RN. 2007. What's in a look?. Dev. Sci. 10:148–53 [Google Scholar]
  5. Baillargeon R, Scott RM, Bian L. 2016. Psychological reasoning in infancy. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 67:159–86 [Google Scholar]
  6. Balaban MT, Waxman SR. 1997. Do words facilitate object categorization in 9-month-old infants. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 64:3–26 [Google Scholar]
  7. Bar-Haim Y, Ziv T, Lamy D, Hodes RM. 2006. Nature and nurture in own-race face processing. Psychol. Sci. 17:2159–63 [Google Scholar]
  8. Bergelson E, Swingley D. 2012. At 6–9 months, human infants know the meanings of many common nouns. PNAS 109:93253–58 [Google Scholar]
  9. Bortfeld H, Morgan JL, Golinkoff RM, Rathbun K. 2005. Mommy and me: Familiar names help launch babies into speech-stream segmentation. Psychol. Sci. 16:4298–304 [Google Scholar]
  10. Bosworth RG, Dobkins KR. 2009. Chromatic and luminance contrast sensitivity in fullterm and preterm infants. J. Vis. 9:131–16 [Google Scholar]
  11. Brown R. 1958. Words and Things: An Introduction to Language Glencoe, IL: Free Press
  12. Bruderer AG, Danielson DK, Kandhadai P, Werker JF. 2015. Sensorimotor influences on speech perception in infancy. PNAS 112:4413531–36 [Google Scholar]
  13. Carey S. 2009. The Origin of Concepts Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press
  14. Chen ML, Waxman SR. 2013. “Shall we blick?” Novel words highlight actors’ underlying intentions for 14-month-old infants. Dev. Psychol. 49:3426–31 [Google Scholar]
  15. Chomsky N. 1986. Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publ. Group
  16. Colombo J. 2002. Infant attention grows up: the emergence of a developmental cognitive neuroscience perspective. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 11:6196–200 [Google Scholar]
  17. Condry KF, Spelke ES. 2008. The development of language and abstract concepts: the case of natural number. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 137:122–38 [Google Scholar]
  18. Csibra G, Davis G, Spratling MW, Johnson MH. 2000. Gamma oscillations and object processing in the infant brain. Science 290:1582–85 [Google Scholar]
  19. Csibra G, Gergely G. 2009. Natural pedagogy. Trends Cogn. Sci. 13:4148–53 [Google Scholar]
  20. Csibra G, Shamsudheen R. 2015. Nonverbal generics: human infants interpret objects as symbols of object kinds. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 66:689–710 [Google Scholar]
  21. Dehaene-Lambertz G, Dehaene S, Hertz-Pannier L. 2002. Functional neuroimaging of speech perception in infants. Science 298:56002013–15 [Google Scholar]
  22. DeSilva J, Lesnik J. 2006. Chimpanzee neonatal brain size: implications for brain growth in Homo erectus. J. Hum. Evol. 51:2207–12 [Google Scholar]
  23. Dewar K, Xu F. 2007. Do 9-month-old infants expect distinct words to refer to kinds. Dev. Psychol. 43:51227–38 [Google Scholar]
  24. Doupe AJ, Kuhl PK. 1999. Birdsong and human speech: common themes and mechanisms. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 22:567–631 [Google Scholar]
  25. Fair J, Flom R, Jones J, Martin J. 2012. Perceptual learning: 12-month-olds’ discrimination of monkey faces. Child Dev 83:61996–2006 [Google Scholar]
  26. Feigenson L, Dehaene S, Spelke E. 2004. Core systems of number. Trends Cogn. Sci. 8:7307–14 [Google Scholar]
  27. Ferguson B, Havy M, Waxman SR. 2015. The precision of 12-month-old infants’ link between language and categorization predicts vocabulary size at 12 and 18 months. Front. Psychol. 6:1319 [Google Scholar]
  28. Ferguson B, Lew-Williams C. 2016. Communicative signals promote abstract rule learning by 7-month-old infants. Sci. Rep. 6:25434 [Google Scholar]
  29. Ferguson B, Waxman SR. 2016a. Linking language and categorization in infancy. J. Child Lang. 44:3527–52 [Google Scholar]
  30. Ferguson B, Waxman SR. 2016b. What the [beep]? Six-month-olds link novel communicative signals to meaning. Cognition 146:185–89 [Google Scholar]
  31. Ferry AL, Hespos SJ, Waxman SR. 2010. Categorization in 3- and 4-month-old infants: an advantage of words over tones. Child Dev 81:2472–79 [Google Scholar]
  32. Ferry AL, Hespos SJ, Waxman SR. 2013. Nonhuman primate vocalizations support categorization in very young human infants. PNAS 110:3815231–35 [Google Scholar]
  33. Fodor JA. 1975. The Language of Thought Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press
  34. Friedrich M, Friederici AD. 2010. Maturing brain mechanisms and developing behavioral language skills. Brain Lang 114:266–71 [Google Scholar]
  35. Friendly RH, Rendall D, Trainor LJ. 2013a. Learning to differentiate individuals by their voices: infants’ individuation of native- and foreign-species voices. Dev. Psychobiol. 56:2228–37 [Google Scholar]
  36. Friendly RH, Rendall D, Trainor LJ. 2013b. Plasticity after perceptual narrowing for voice perception: reinstating the ability to discriminate monkeys by their voices at 12 months of age. Front. Psychol. 4:718 [Google Scholar]
  37. Fulkerson AL, Waxman SR. 2007. Words (but not tones) facilitate object categorization: evidence from 6- and 12-month-olds. Cognition 105:1218–28 [Google Scholar]
  38. Gelman SA. 2004. Psychological essentialism in children. Trends Cogn. Sci. 8:9404–9 [Google Scholar]
  39. Gergely G, Bekkering H, Király I. 2002. Developmental psychology: rational imitation in preverbal infants. Nature 415:6873755–56 [Google Scholar]
  40. Giraud A-L, Poeppel D. 2012. Cortical oscillations and speech processing: emerging computational principles and operations. Nat. Neurosci. 15:4511–17 [Google Scholar]
  41. Gleitman H, Gross J, Reisberg D. 2011. Psychology New York: W.W. Norton, 8th ed..
  42. Gleitman L, Papafragou A. 2005. Language and thought. Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning 9 K Holyoak, R Morrison 633–61 Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  43. Gleitman LR. 1990. The structural sources of verb meanings. Lang. Acquis. 1:13–55 [Google Scholar]
  44. Gleitman LR, Cassidy K, Nappa R, Papafragou A, Trueswell JC. 2005. Hard words. Lang. Learn. Dev. 1:123–64 [Google Scholar]
  45. Gliga T, Volein A, Csibra G. 2009. Verbal labels modulate perceptual object processing in 1-year-old infants. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 22:122781–89 [Google Scholar]
  46. Gobel MS, Kim HS, Richardson DC. 2015. The dual function of social gaze. Cognition 136:359–64 [Google Scholar]
  47. Goldin-Meadow S. 2017. What the hands can tell us about language emergence. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 24:1213–18 [Google Scholar]
  48. Golinkoff RM, Hirsh-Pasek K, Cauley KM, Gordon L. 1987. The eyes have it: lexical and syntactic comprehension in a new paradigm. J. Child Lang. 14:123–45 [Google Scholar]
  49. Gonzalez-Gomez N, Nazzi T. 2012. Phonotactic acquisition in healthy preterm infants. Dev. Sci. 15:6885–94 [Google Scholar]
  50. Goswami U. 2011. A temporal sampling framework for developmental dyslexia. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15:13–10 [Google Scholar]
  51. Goswami U. 2016. Educational neuroscience: neural structure-mapping and the promise of oscillations. Curr. Opin. Behav. Sci. 10:89–96 [Google Scholar]
  52. Grossmann T, Gliga T, Johnson MH, Mareschal D. 2009. The neural basis of perceptual category learning in human infants. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 21:122276–86 [Google Scholar]
  53. Hannon EE, Trehub SE. 2005. Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults. PNAS 102:3512639–43 [Google Scholar]
  54. Heron-Delaney M, Anzures G, Herbert JS, Quinn PC, Slater AM. et al. 2011. Perceptual training prevents the emergence of the other race effect during infancy. PLOS ONE 6:51–5 [Google Scholar]
  55. Hill J, Inder T, Neil J, Dierker D, Harwell J, Van Essen D. 2010. Similar patterns of cortical expansion during human development and evolution. PNAS 107:2913135–40 [Google Scholar]
  56. Jusczyk PW, Aslin RN. 1995. Infants’ detection of the sound patterns of words in fluent speech. Cogn. Psychol. 29:1–23 [Google Scholar]
  57. Kaufman J, Csibra G, Johnson MH. 2003. Representing occluded objects in the human infant brain. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. 270:S140–43 [Google Scholar]
  58. Kaufman J, Csibra G, Johnson MH. 2005. Oscillatory activity in the infant brain reflects object maintenance. PNAS 102:4215271–74 [Google Scholar]
  59. Kelly DJ, Quinn PC, Slater AM, Lee K, Ge L, Pascalis O. 2007. The other-race effect develops during infancy: evidence of perceptual narrowing. Psychol. Sci. 18:121084–89 [Google Scholar]
  60. Kelly DJ, Quinn PC, Slater AM, Lee K, Gibson A. et al. 2005. Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces. Dev. Sci. 8:6F31–36 [Google Scholar]
  61. Klibanoff RS, Waxman SR. 2000. Basic level object categories support the acquisition of novel adjectives: evidence from preschool-aged children. Child Dev 71:3649–59 [Google Scholar]
  62. Kovács ÁM, Téglás EA, Gergely G, Csibra G. 2017. Seeing behind the surface: Communicative demonstration boosts category disambiguation in 12-month-olds. Dev. Sci. In press. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12485
  63. Kraus N, Slater J. 2016. Beyond words: how humans communicate through sound. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 67:83–103 [Google Scholar]
  64. Kuhl P, Rivera-Gaxiola M. 2008. Neural substrates of language acquisition. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 31:511–34 [Google Scholar]
  65. Kuhl PK. 2007. Is speech learning “gated” by the social brain?. Dev. Sci. 10:1110–20 [Google Scholar]
  66. Kuzawa C, Bragg J. 2012. Plasticity in human life history strategy. Curr. Anthropol. 53:6S369–82 [Google Scholar]
  67. Lee SA, Shusterman A, Spelke ES. 2006. Reorientation and landmark-guided search by young children: evidence for two systems. Psychol. Sci. 17:7577–82 [Google Scholar]
  68. Lewkowicz DJ, Ghazanfar AA. 2009. The emergence of multisensory systems through perceptual narrowing. Trends Cogn. Sci. 13:11470–78 [Google Scholar]
  69. Lorenz K. 1937. On the formation of the concept of instinct. Nat. Sci. 25:289–300 [Google Scholar]
  70. Mareschal D, Quinn PC. 2001. Categorization in infancy. Trends Cogn. Sci. 5:10443–50 [Google Scholar]
  71. Martin A, Onishi KH, Vouloumanos A. 2012. Understanding the abstract role of speech in communication at 12 months. Cognition 123:50–60 [Google Scholar]
  72. Maurer D, Werker JF. 2014. Perceptual narrowing during infancy: a comparison of language and faces. Dev. Psychobiol. 56:2154–78 [Google Scholar]
  73. May L, Werker JF. 2014. Can a click be a word? Infants’ learning of non-native words. Infancy 19:3281–300 [Google Scholar]
  74. Maye J, Werker JF, Gerken LA. 2002. Infant sensitivity to distributional information can affect phonetic discrimination. Cognition 82:B101–11 [Google Scholar]
  75. Medin D, Ortony A. 1989. Psychological essentialism. Similarity and Analogical Reasoning S Vosniadou, A Ortony 179–95 Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  76. Miller GA. 1990. The place of language in a scientific psychology. Psychol. Sci. 1:17–14 [Google Scholar]
  77. Mintz TH, Gleitman LR. 2002. Adjectives really do modify nouns: the incremental and restricted nature of early adjective acquisition. Cognition 84:3267–93 [Google Scholar]
  78. Moll H, Tomasello M. 2004. 12- and 18-month-old infants follow gaze to spaces behind barriers. Dev. Sci. 7:11–9 [Google Scholar]
  79. Namy LL, Waxman SR. 1998. Words and gestures: infants’ interpretations of different forms of symbolic reference. Child Dev 69:2295–308 [Google Scholar]
  80. Owren MJ, Amoss RT, Rendall D. 2011. Two organizing principles of vocal production: implications for nonhuman and human primates. Am. J. Primatol. 73:6530–44 [Google Scholar]
  81. Parise E, Csibra G. 2012. Electrophysiological evidence for the understanding of maternal speech by 9-month-old infants. Psychol. Sci. 23:7728–33 [Google Scholar]
  82. Pascalis O, Scott LS, Kelly DJ, Shannon RW, Nicholson E. et al. 2005. Plasticity of face processing in infancy. PNAS 102:145297–300 [Google Scholar]
  83. Peña M, Pittaluga E, Mehler J. 2010. Language acquisition in premature and full-term infants. PNAS 107:83823–28 [Google Scholar]
  84. Peña M, Werker JF, Dehaene-Lambertz G. 2012. Earlier speech exposure does not accelerate speech acquisition. J. Neurosci. 32:3311159–63 [Google Scholar]
  85. Perszyk DR, Ferguson B, Waxman SR. 2017. Maturation constrains the effect of exposure in linking language and thought: evidence from healthy preterm infants. Dev. Sci. In press. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12522
  86. Perszyk DR, Waxman SR. 2016. Listening to the calls of the wild: the role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants. Cognition 153:175–81 [Google Scholar]
  87. Pinker S. 1994. The Language Instinct New York: Harper Collins
  88. Pyers JE, Shusterman A, Senghas A, Spelke ES, Emmorey K. 2010. Evidence from an emerging sign language reveals that language supports spatial cognition. PNAS 107:2712116–20 [Google Scholar]
  89. Quinn PC, Westerlund A, Nelson CA. 2006. Neural markers of categorization in 6-month-old infants. Psychol. Sci. 17:159–66 [Google Scholar]
  90. Quinn PC, Yahr J, Kuhn A, Slater AM, Pascalis O. 2002. Representation of the gender of human faces by infants: a preference for female. Perception 31:91109–21 [Google Scholar]
  91. Schieffelin B, Ochs E. 1986. Language socialization. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 15:163–91 [Google Scholar]
  92. Scott LS, Pascalis O, Nelson CA. 2007. A domain-general theory of the development of perceptual discrimination. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 16:4197–201 [Google Scholar]
  93. Seidl A, Tincoff R, Baker C, Cristia A. 2015. Why the body comes first: effects of experimenter touch on infants’ word finding. Dev. Sci. 18:1155–64 [Google Scholar]
  94. Senju A, Csibra G. 2008. Gaze following in human infants depends on communicative signals. Curr. Biol. 18:668–71 [Google Scholar]
  95. Senju A, Csibra G, Johnson MH. 2008. Understanding the referential nature of looking: infants’ preference for object-directed gaze. Cognition 108:2303–19 [Google Scholar]
  96. Senju A, Johnson MH. 2009. The eye contact effect: mechanisms and development. Trends Cogn. Sci. 13:3127–34 [Google Scholar]
  97. Shultz S, Vouloumanos A, Bennett RH, Pelphrey K. 2014. Neural specialization for speech in the first months of life. Dev. Sci. 17:5766–74 [Google Scholar]
  98. Smith JD, Berg ME, Cook RG, Murphy MS, Crossley MJ. et al. 2012. Implicit and explicit categorization: a tale of four species. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 36:102355–69 [Google Scholar]
  99. Southgate V, Csibra G, Kaufman J, Johnson MH. 2008. Distinct processing of objects and faces in the infant brain. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 20:741–49 [Google Scholar]
  100. Spaepen E, Coppola M, Spelke ES, Carey SE, Goldin-Meadow S. 2011. Number without a language model. PNAS 108:83163–68 [Google Scholar]
  101. Spelke ES. 1990. Principles of object perception. Cogn. Sci. 14:29–56 [Google Scholar]
  102. Spelke ES. 2017. Core knowledge, language, and number. Lang. Learn. Dev. 13:2147–70 [Google Scholar]
  103. Spelke ES, Kinzler KD. 2007. Core knowledge. Dev. Sci. 10:189–96 [Google Scholar]
  104. Swingley D. 2012. Cognitive development in language acquisition. Lang. Learn. Dev. 8:1–3 [Google Scholar]
  105. Tincoff R, Jusczyk PW. 2012. Six-month-olds comprehend words that refer to parts of the body. Infancy 17:4432–44 [Google Scholar]
  106. Vergne AL, Mathevon N. 2008. Crocodile egg sounds signal hatching time. Curr. Biol. 18:12513–14 [Google Scholar]
  107. Vouloumanos A, Druhen MJ, Hauser MD, Huizink AT. 2009. Five-month-old infants’ identification of the sources of vocalizations. PNAS 106:4418867–72 [Google Scholar]
  108. Vouloumanos A, Hauser MD, Werker JF, Martin A. 2010. The tuning of human neonates’ preference for speech. Child Dev 81:2517–27 [Google Scholar]
  109. Vouloumanos A, Martin A, Onishi KH. 2014. Do 6-month-olds understand that speech can communicate. Dev. Sci. 17:6872–79 [Google Scholar]
  110. Vouloumanos A, Onishi KH, Pogue A. 2012. Twelve-month-old infants recognize that speech can communicate unobservable intentions. PNAS 109:3212933–37 [Google Scholar]
  111. Vouloumanos A, Waxman SR. 2014. Listen up! Speech is for thinking during infancy. Trends Cogn. Sci. 18:12642–46 [Google Scholar]
  112. Waxman SR. 1999. Specifying the scope of 13-month-olds’ expectations for novel words. Cognition 70:3B35–50 [Google Scholar]
  113. Waxman SR, Braun I. 2005. Consistent (but not variable) names as invitations to form object categories: new evidence from 12-month-old infants. Cognition 95:3B59–68 [Google Scholar]
  114. Waxman SR, Gelman SA. 2009. Early word-learning entails reference, not merely associations. Trends Cogn. Sci. 13:6258–63 [Google Scholar]
  115. Waxman SR, Lidz JL. 2006. Early word learning. Handbook of Child Psychology 2 D Kuhn, R Siegler 299–335 Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 6th ed.. [Google Scholar]
  116. Waxman SR, Markow DB. 1995. Words as invitations to form categories: evidence from 12- to 13-month-old infants. Cogn. Psychol. 29:3257–302 [Google Scholar]
  117. Werker JF, Hensch TK. 2015. Critical periods in speech perception: new directions. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 66:173–96 [Google Scholar]
  118. Werker JF, Tees RC. 1984. Cross-language speech perception: evidence for perceptual reorganization during the first year of life. Infant Behav. Dev. 7:49–63 [Google Scholar]
  119. Whorf BL. 1956. Language, Thought and Reality Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  120. Woodward AL, Hoyne KL. 1999. Infants’ learning about words and sounds in relation to objects. Child Dev 70:165–77 [Google Scholar]
  121. Wu R, Tummeltshammer KS, Gliga T, Kirkham NZ. 2014. Ostensive signals support learning from novel attention cues during infancy. Front. Psychol. 5:251 [Google Scholar]
  122. Xu F. 2002. The role of language in acquiring object kind concepts in infancy. Cognition 85:3223–50 [Google Scholar]
  123. Xu F. 2007. Sortal concepts, object individuation, and language. Trends Cogn. Sci. 11:9400–6 [Google Scholar]
  124. Yin J, Csibra G. 2015. Concept-based word learning in human infants. Psychol. Sci. 26:81316–24 [Google Scholar]
  125. Yoon JMD, Johnson MH, Csibra G. 2008. Communication-induced memory biases in preverbal infants. PNAS 105:3613690–95 [Google Scholar]
  126. Zangenehpour S, Ghazanfar AA, Lewkowicz DJ, Zatorre RJ. 2009. Heterochrony and cross-species intersensory matching by infant vervet monkeys. PLOS ONE 4:1e4302 [Google Scholar]

Data & Media loading...

  • Article Type: Review Article
This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was a Success
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error