Online Colloquium: Dr. Jenny Saffran, University of Wisconsin

Friday March 20, 2020
12:30 PM - 2:00 PM

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Dr. Jenny Saffran’s colloquium talk and Q&A is taking place remotely.


Dr. Jenny Saffran, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Learning to understand: Statistical learning and infant language development


Infants rapidly develop from being naïve listeners, who experience language as a sea of sounds, to understanding their native language(s). How does this remarkable learning process unfold? One potentially useful source of information lies in the statistical patterns that characterize natural languages, which signal structures ranging from phonemes to words to grammatical structures. Over the past two decades, researchers have demonstrated that infants are sensitive to myriad statistical regularities in language input. Beyond merely tracking these patterns, how might infants use statistical regularities to support language development? In my presentation, I will explore the hypothesis that infants exploit statistical regularities in the service of efficiently learning and processing information in their environments. To this end, I will present results from recent studies from my lab examining the role of statistical learning in infants’ uncertainty reduction behaviors (including predictive processing, error-based learning, and active sampling). By learning to efficiently encode language input, infants become increasingly able to process their native language(s).  I’ll conclude with a discussion of atypical developmental trajectories considered through the lens of statistical language learning.


Jenny Saffran is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She specializes in language acquisition and early cognitive development, and she also conducts research on music cognition. She began her research career as a high school volunteer in an infant development lab at Swarthmore College and continued to study infant language development as an undergraduate at Brown University. She received her PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester in 1997, working with Elissa Newport and Richard Aslin. She has been a Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison since 1997, where she runs the Infant Learning Lab at the UW–Madison Waisman Center.

Annually the Department of Psychology hosts a Colloquia Series throughout the academic year. This exciting program brings us together outside of the classroom to have conversations with the speakers we’ve invited to our campus to share their ideas. You’ll have the chance to hear from international speakers on a wide range of provocative topics.