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Sandra Waxman


Research Interests

As a developmental scientist, I consider human development, across ages and across cultures. Adopting a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural perspective, I focus on infants’ and young children’s concepts, words, and reasoning. I am also dedicated to building bridges across traditional disciplinary boundaries to focus on pressing issues facing young children and their families.

How (and how early) do infants link language and cognition? In my primary research lab, the Infant and Child Development Center, we consider the acquisition of two fundamental human capacities -- conceptual development and language development -- and the relation between them in infants and toddlers. We focus on these capacities throughout the first two years of life, beginning with infants as young as 3 months of age. Adopting a cross-linguistic developmental perspective, our research involves infants and young children acquiring a range of different languages, including English, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, French and Italian. We show that even before infants begin to speak, their language and cognitive advances are powerfully linked.

How do young children reason about the natural world? In this arena, we examine the role of culture and associated epistemological orientations in the development of knowledge and reasoning about the natural world. Adopting a cross-cultural developmental approach, we consider how children learn about the natural world. What does it mean to be alive? What is the relation between humans and other living things? Together with colleagues at Northwestern, the National Research Council of Argentina (CONICET) and in Native communities in the US, we examine learning in very young children from Native American and non-Native communities. We have shown that cultural differences in how we view the relation between humans and other living things is manifest not only in our knowledge and reasoning, but also in our practices and beliefs about what it means to be alive. 

For fuller descriptions of my lab and developmental science at Northwestern, please see these links:

Infant and Child Development Center (Waxman infant lab) 

Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci) 

Harnessing the Power of Development to Improve Lives: Healthier, Earlier 

Institute for Policy Research

Selected Recent Publications

Infant language and cognition

Waxman, S.R., & Perszyk, D. (in press). Linking Language and Cognition in Infancy. Annual Review of Psychology, 69.

Ferguson, B., Graf, E., &Waxman, S.R. (2017). When veps cry: Two-year-olds efficiently learn novel words from linguistic contexts alone. Language Learning and Development. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/15475441.2017.1311260

Perszyk, D., Ferguson B., & Waxman, S. (2016). Maturation constrains the effect of exposure in linking language and thought: Evidence from healthy preterm infants. Developmental Science. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/desc.12522.

Waxman, S., X. Fu, B. Ferguson, K. Geraghty, E. Leddon, J. Liang, and M. Zhao. 2016. How early is infants’ attention to objects and actions shaped by culture? New evidence from 24-month-olds raised in the U.S. and ChinaFrontiers in Psychology: Cultural Psychologydoi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00097.

Perszyk, D., and S. Waxman. 2016. Listening to the calls of the wild: The role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants. Cognition 153: 175-181.

Ferguson, B., and S. Waxman. 2016. What the [beep]? Six-month-olds link novel communicative signals to meaning. Cognition 146: 185-189. 

Ferry, A., Hespos, S., & Waxman, S. (2013). Non-human primate vocalizations support categorization in very young human infants. PNAS, 110(38), 15231–15235.

Ferry, A., Hespos, S.,  & Waxman, S. (2010). Categorization in 3- and 4-month-old infants: An advantage of words over tones. Child Development, 81(2), 472-479.

Reasoning about the natural world

Waxman, S., Herrmann, P., Woodring, J., & Medin, D. (2016). Humans (really) are animals: Picture-book reading influences five-year-old urban children’s construal of the relation between humans and non-human animals. In J. S. Horst & C. Houston-Price (Eds). An open book: What and how young children learn from picture and story books. Lausanne: Frontiers Media. doi: 10.3389/978-2-88919-728-6.

Taverna, A., D. Medin, and S. Waxman. 2016. "Inhabitants of the earth": Reasoning about folkbiological concepts in Wichi children and adultsEarly Education and Development. doi: 10.1080/10409289.2016.1168228.

More Publications

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