The Secret Life of Psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason

The Web site for the PBS program NOVA has a great feature called The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers. As the Web site says, it’s “where the lab coats come off.” Each featured scientist provides a 30 second summary of their research and answers 10 questions that are completely unrelated to their field of study.

Psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason is this week’s featured scientist. Check out the site to to hear a quick overview of her work in the area of language acquisition (specifically how children acquire morphological rules in English), and find out about her secret life (she drives fast cars).

For her research, Gleason invented the Wug:

To find out if kids have the same sort of knowledge we needed to use natural-sounding words that they didn’t already know. If we used real words like “dog,” they might know the plural “dogs,” but this could be an imitation of what they heard from adults. So I invented the little animal called a “wug,” a name that we could be sure they never heard before. We showed them pictures of a wug, and said “This is a wug.” Then we showed them another picture and said, “Now there’s another one. There are two of them. There are two….??” To our delight, even preschoolers could add the plural ending and tell us that there were two “wugs.” We used this invented word method to check kids’ knowledge of plurals, possessives, verb tenses, and a variety of other important features of English and found that by the age of 4 they could provide all the most common forms.

Gleason is one of about 30 scientists featured on the NOVA site (with a new addition every couple of weeks). Some of our favorites? The neuroscientist cheerleader, the climate scientist juggler, and the experimental psychologist foot photographer.

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