• Facilitation [+]
    In an extensive series of studies, Waxman and colleagues have provided evidence for the view that labels have an impact on category formation in young infants. Using a novelty preference procedure, infants were familiarised with a series of objects taken from the same category and then given a choice between two novel objects, one of which is from the familiarised category. During familiarisation, the objects are accompanied by a novel label such as 'dax' or a neutral carrier phrase such as 'Look at this'. Infants show a preference for the out-of-category object when familiarised with the novel label, but not with the neutral carrier phrase.

    These findings are interpreted as demonstrating that `labels facilitate categorisation', that labels 'act as invitations to form categories' and that labels 'highlight the commonalities between objects'. Their findings suggest that the effects are specific to the consistent use of labels that could be words in the infant's language. Tones and buzzers don't achieve the same effect and the same label needs to be used consistently throughout familiarisation. Using different labels doesn't work. These findings have been reported for infants well before their first birthday, indicating that labels have an impact on infant categorisation before they produce their first words and before they have acquired a substantial receptive vocabulary.
  • Interference [+]
    A contrasting set of studies by Sloutsky and Robinson point to a different conclusion: That novel labels overshadow the processing of visual stimuli by young infants and, therefore, that auditory stimuli (including novel labels) interfere with category formation. They base their conclusions on a series of habituation studies in which infants are familiarised with compound auditory-visual stimuli and are then exposed to a dishabituation stimulus that changes either the auditory component or the visual component. Infants notice the change in the auditory component but not the change in the visual component. Failure to dishabituate to a change in the visual stimulus is interpreted as a failure to process the visual stimulus as a result of the auditory stimulus overshadowing the visual information during familiarisation.

    It should be noted that familiar auditory stimuli, such as well-known names, do not produce such dramatic overshadowing effects. Furthermore, novel labels interfere with visual processing in 10 month olds but not at 16 months.

    The finding that novel labels interfere with visual processing in 10 month-old infants does not sit well with the finding that novel labels can facilitate the categorisation of objects: Auditory dominance effects are more likely to impede categorisation than to facilitate infants' attention to the commonalities between objects.
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