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Gallaudet University Awarded Grant to Learn How Babies Learn

March 11, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – March 11, 2015 – Gallaudet University today announced it has been awarded a three-year, $900,000 grant by the W. M. Keck Foundation for a research team led by Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, a Developmental Cognitive Neuroscientist widely known for her discoveries about the biological foundations of language. The team will conduct basic science to address the early learning needs of vast numbers of children throughout the nation who are impacted by the devastating consequences of minimal or delayed language exposure, particularly deaf children.

The project, entitled “Seeing the Rhythmic Temporal Beats of Human Language,” builds on Petitto’s earlier discoveries that deaf babies are sensitive to the rhythmic patterning of human language’s phonological structure, even though these patterns are conveyed silently on the hands in signed languages. In the Keck project, Petitto joins together with a multidisciplinary team of scientists from traditionally disparate disciplines spanning Gallaudet University (Petitto’s Neuroimaging, with Melissa Malzkuhn, Motion Capture), the University of Southern California (Dr. David Traum, Virtual Human Science), Yale University (Dr. Brian Scassellati, Robotics), and the Universita D’Annunzio, Chieti, Italy (Dr. Arcangelo Merla, Applied Psychophysiology and Thermal infrared face imaging). The goal is to create a revolutionary learning tool that provides the core components of language’s rhythmic phonological patterning to babies during critical periods of early brain development.

The RAVE, or “Robot AVatar thermal-Enhanced prototype,” will be built and placed near a baby’s crib to facilitate sensitivity to language patterns vital for language and reading success. The Robot will be interfaced with Thermal Infrared Imaging that signals when the infant is in a peaked emotional and attentional state and most “ready to learn.” A baby’s interactive eye gaze with the Robot will then trigger a Virtual Human to provide rhythmic-temporal nursery rhymes, fairy tales, or simple stories in a visual (sign) language, with speech options, and either to cease or to solicit interactions when the baby’s social engagement ceases, thereby simulating for the first time rudimentary joint attention and socially-contingent conversation.

“The RAVE learning tool is intended to break the communication barrier widely impacting many young children with minimal language interactions or delayed language input,” said Dr. Petitto, who is the grant’s principal investigator and the Co-PI and Science Director of NSF’s Science of Learning Center, Visual Language and Visual Learning, VL2, at Gallaudet University. “If successful, the work will advance a new understanding of how babies learn, resolve previously insoluble problems in the Virtual Human, Robotics, and the Neuroimaging studies of language, create a new science of Intelligent Agents, and yield a transformative learning tool that benefits all children.”

Minimal or delayed early first-language exposure can have a lifelong deleterious impact on learning, language, and reading. All babies are born with a sensitivity to language’s rhythmic patterns—a sensitivity that permits them to discover (to find salient, select, and attend to) the finite set of phonetic and syllabic units, and their sequences and patterning, which they will use to build all the words (signs) and sentences in their native language over life. However, babies must encounter the rhythmic patterns of the language within key critical periods of early brain and language development.

Deaf babies also identify a finite set of sign phonetic and sign syllabic units on the hands that facilitate language and later reading success. However, this normal developmental process occurs most optimally with early visual language experience, which is often not available to them.

“The new interdisciplinary science created in this Keck research involving socially-assistive ‘Intelligent Agents’ has the possibility of providing fundamental scientific answers about how babies discover their native language that is key to language learning and reading. It can also yield a transformative, tangible deliverable for the benefit of young children with minimal interaction and delayed language input, thereby preventing the potentially devastating impact on learning, language, and reading that delayed early first language exposure can cause,” concluded Petitto.

About Dr. Petitto

Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto is highly-regarded worldwide for her studies of the neural processing of language in the developing brain, including visual sign language processing, and especially the brain tissue that makes possible language processing (signed and spoken). In addition to her roles as the Co-PI and Science Director of the NSF Science of Learning Center, Visual Language and Visual Learning, VL2, Dr. Petitto leads the state-of-the-art “Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging.” Recent international recognition of her many accomplishments includes the award of the 2015-2017 Sin Wai-Kin Distinguished Visiting Professorship in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong.

About Gallaudet

Gallaudet University, federally chartered in 1864, is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English. Gallaudet maintains a proud tradition of research and scholarly activity and prepares its graduates for career opportunities in a highly competitive, technological, and rapidly changing world.

About the Foundation

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grantmaking is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical, science and engineering research. The Foundation also maintains an undergraduate education program that promotes distinctive learning and research experiences for students in the sciences and in the liberal arts and a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth from low-income families, special needs populations and safety-net services. For more information, please visit www.

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