Deb Roy – The Birth of a Word

Deb Roy "The Birth of the Word"

According to my parents, my first word was as a baby was “ashes”.  Apparently they used to sing London Bridges Falling Down to me as a child, acting it out as they sang.  One of the lines in the song is “ashes, ashes, we all fall down”, hence the origin of my first word.

I always wondered why the word “ashes” was the simplest to me, in order for me to vocalize it first.  Why not “mama” or “dada”, as it is with most children?  I’m sure my parents also used those words frequently, so what was it about “ashes” that stuck?

Deb Roy, a cognitive scientist at MIT, presented an incredibly interesting study explaining how children learn to communicate and vocalize at early ages.  He conducted a study by placing cameras in every room in his house and filming nonstop for 3 years of his newborn son and his family.  He then sifted through years of data and highlighted the verbal and nonverbal interactions between his son and himself that enabled him to conduct his study.  He created a program that allowed him to see patterns in his recordings that show the relationship with the child’s surroundings that the child himself.  He discovered that when parents are able to express words in the simplest and most accessible way, the child will learn it.  His data showed a correlation between where the child continues to hear the word, and how quickly they learn to say it by the parent’s way of relating it.  His main point was that the parent has to try to communicate with a child at their level of understanding in order to get them to say the word.

While his research is fascinating, and certainly illustrates the process of language development, what I find most interesting is how Roy intends to use this discovery to understand communication through social networking.  Since we are clearly changing our methods of communicating through social networking and mass media, Roy intends to take advantage of our constantly adapting world.  He used the same program he used when tracking his son, but instead recorded the social media that is generated from television content.  Essentially, through his research he found that he could track the comments of everyone who posted or spoke about a certain show, and recorded it in certain categories.  For example, more commentaries are made about the Jersey Shore than the Office, so he created a chart that showed a higher spike of commentary about the former.  During his presentation, he gave a preview of his upcoming work by discussing the 2011 State of the Union Address, when he traced households that were listening or watching it on TV.  Roy tracked the amount of media and communication that the speech generated and plotted the data to see how people responded to the speech.  It is a step further for television, since previously cable companies were just able to poll by the number of viewers watching.  Now, they can poll based on emails, IMs, and social networking, and see what people actually thought about the speech and how engaged they were in the content.

I would enjoy hearing more about his research in communication, and what his plans are for the future.  If he were to come to Bucknell, I would love to hear about his progress and what the future of his research in communication holds.




5 thoughts on “Deb Roy – The Birth of a Word

  1. I believe that this research holds a great deal of information simply because by understanding what makes large masses of people tick we are better able to communicate succinctly and with greater impact. I think that his work would do well at Bucknell as a lot of students are interested in being able to better connect with people, whether they are in marketing, creative writing or any other communicable field of study.

  2. This could be an incredibly interesting topic of discussion and even provide insight into learning. At a time when we are so over stimulated by media and advertising, finding messages that resonate with people can be difficult to do, but extremely beneficial if successful. By using this kind of program to track consumers’ response to marketing and advertising, firms can spend less on frequency but have a greater impact on their market. The downfall though is that these connections to consumers will constantly change and shift, so continuous tracking would be necessary to keep up and ahead of the game.
    An alternative application of this kind of program could be to identify how students learn in and out of the classroom to develop more effective study habits. I feel like there’s so many “visual learners” out there, but no way right now to measure the truth in that or find how students relate to the material they are trying to learn. Perhaps educators can take something from this discovery to provide more effective learning tools for students to interact with their learning.

  3. This could be a very interesting speech to hear. Since social media and advertising is part of our every day lives, students would be extremely interested in learning about communication in different social medias. I agree with the two comments above that it would help students learn how to connect with people. No matter what industry or job you go into, most likely social media will be part involved. This would help people obtain a better understanding of not only what they talk about, but how they talk about certain topics

  4. This is a really cool concept. I think that children development especially with regards to communication is changing drastically. Social media is embedded so much into children’s minds at a such a young age that it definitely affects their upbringing and this is a topic I would love to hear more about and possibly even explore myself.

  5. How did you add him to our list? Just curious. I am not sure I get the TV thing. he is tracking social networking commentary of watchers of a particular show? How does he map from facebook profile to a specific show?


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