Recent research has shown that infants actively and strategically sample information from their environment as a function of their uncertainty (Baer & Kidd, 2022; Goupil & Kouider, 2019), and that they learn novel properties or labels for objects better after choosing to visually explore these objects (Begus, Southgate, & Gliga, 2015), or pointing towards them (Begus & Southgate, 2012; Lucca & Wilbourn, 2016). Yet, so far, evidence for active learning during infancy comes from highly structured experiments where information is consistently delivered at specific times and locations by experimenters. This greatly simplifies the task for the infant, as compared to what they typically encounter in naturalistic, complex and free-flowing situations. Thus, whether these findings would extend to naturalistic interaction between caregivers and their infants, and how the spontaneous organization of behaviors at the scale of the dyad can support infant-led forms of learning, remains unknown. Adopting a dyadic approach, in this pre-registered study we collected audio-visual recordings and dual-EEG data from 38 caregiver-infant dyads while infants (14-mo) were provided with the opportunity to learn novel words from their caregivers in a naturalistic setting. Dyads briefly played with the toys, and infants’ learning of new object-label mappings was then tested in a looking-while-listening procedure (Fernald & Marchman, 2008). Results show that infants learn what novel words refer to in this context, with some variability. This setting allows us to examine what fosters word learning in these (quasi-)naturalistic conditions, and whether infants’ active engagement with objects helps them learn novel words. Consistent with previous reports (Pereira, Smith, & Yu, 2014; Wass, Clackson, et al., 2018; Yu & Smith, 2013), we observe that – rather than mutually adapting to one another’s behaviors, i.e., coordinating their gaze in the strict sense – 14-mo and their mothers engage in a very asymmetric form of interaction during play. While infants often proactively initiated looks towards objects, and rarely followed their mother’s gaze, mothers looked towards their infants’ face most of the time, and tended to follow their interests. Our results also suggest that infants learn the name of a novel object better when their caregiver tends to name the object after they proactively looked towards it. We also find that infants show stronger neural signatures of endogenous attention when they lead a look towards an object, as compared to following their mothers’ attention. We also find marginally greater neural signatures of speech processing when labelling occurs during infants’ manifestations of interest. Our results highlight infants’ proactive engagement with objects and parents’ contingent responses as an important mechanism that can foster word learning during play.
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