December 2019 Spotlight, Mutsumi Imai, Ph.D.

This month, we are delighted to introduce Dr. Mutsumi Imai ( as our member in spotlight. Dr. Imai is currently a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University. In general, Dr. Imai aims to understand how children build up their lexicons and how universal and language factors affect lexical development. Specifically, her research interests include four topics that are deeply interwoven with one another: (1) How children learn language; (2) The role of language in conceptual development; (3) The relation between language and thought (in cross-linguistic contexts) in children and adults; (4) The relation between speech sound and meaning (sound symbolism) in language, and how sound symbolism scaffolds language development.

1) What drew you to do work on Asians, Asian American children and youth, or another topic that is important to you now? who was an important mentor to you in this work, or an influential particular study in the field or in a related field?

Since I started my research career as a graduate student, I have been interested in the relation between language and thought.  Reading books and articles by Leonard Talmy, Melissa Bowerman, George Lakoff, and of course Benjamin Lee Whorf, I was fascinated by how different languages carve up the world differently, and how differences in codification of the world affect thought.  I was also interested in language acquisition, wanting to understand how young children make inferences about meanings of words.  It was natural to me to combine these two streams of interest.  I wanted to explore questions such as: (1) are children’s concepts and attention shaped by language? (2) are there any universally shared conceptual or cognitive foundation at the beginning? (3) how and when do children tune into language-specific categories? 

At that time, an important empirical work was published by Nancy Soja, Susan Carey and Elizabeth Spelke concerning the ontological concept of individuation (i.e., the distinction between countable objects such as apples or books and mass substances such as water or wax).  They challenged a view proposed by W. V. Quine, who had conjectured that children can acquire the ontological distinction between objects and substances only through learning the count/mass grammar.  Soja and colleagues tested 2-year-old English-learning children and showed that the children were able to distinguish objects and substances before they had acquired the count/mass grammar.   I was really intrigued by this report, but thought that their question could be better tested by children learning an Asian language such as Japanese or Chinese that does not have count/mass grammar.  So with Dedre Gentner, I extended Soja and colleagues’ study, comparing English speaking and Japanese speaking children (Imai & Gentner, 1997).  The results turned out to be very interesting but complex. On one hand, not only did we find evidence to support Soja et al.’s view that children possessed the understanding of the ontological distinction between objects and substances, we found that this was true regardless of whether the children’s ambient language distinguished the two kinds grammatically, as in the case of English, or whether it did not, as in the case of Japanese.  On the other hand, we found some support for the linguistic relativity position, in that the Japanese-learning and English-learning children marked the boundaries between the two ontological classes differently. That is, while both groups identified clear examples of  substances and objects similarly, they made different decisions when classifying things which were ontologically ambiguous (e.g., wax formed into a simple distinctive shape.)                

Starting from this work, I have conducted a number of studies investigating how language influences children’s conceptual structures and/or word learning strategies, comparing Asian languages and Indo-European languages.  In different conceptual domains, I keep finding intriguing interaction between universal constraints and language-specific categories. And throughout my research career, I have always felt that I was lucky to have Japanese as my native language, because it has led me to consider questions I might never have thought of if I had only known Indo—European languages.

2) A short paragraph describing a particular recent finding, current study, or recent publication and what makes you excited about it. 

Recently, I have been studying the role of sound symbolism in language learning.  The new research topic was also inspired by the Japanese language. Japanese has a very rich inventory of onomatopoeia.   I was often struck by how effectively caretakers use onomatopoeia when talking to young children.  I thought that onomatopoeia—or iconicity between a word’s sound and that word’s meaning —might play a scaffolding role for language acquisition.  To empirically examine this intuition, I conducted a series of experiments with Sotaro Kita and other colleagues.  We confirmed the scaffolding effect of sound symbolism in object names for young infants, and in verb learning for toddlers (Imai et al., 2008; Miyazaki et al., 2015). Interestingly, we found the effect not only in Japanese-learning children but also in English-learning children whose language does not have as many sound symbolic words in the lexicon (Kantartizs et al., 2011).  Kita and I have proposed the sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis (Imai & Kita, 2014), which maintains that (1) pre-verbal infants are sensitive to sound symbolism, due to a biologically-endowed ability to map and integrate multi-modal input; (2) sound symbolism helps infants gain referential insight into speech sounds; (3) sound symbolism helps infants and toddlers associate speech sounds with their referents to establish a lexical representation; (4) sound symbolism helps toddlers learn words by allowing them to focus on referents embedded in a complex scene.

We also investigated the neural mechanism of sound symbolism using fMRI (for adults), EEG and fNIRS (for infants). We thought that sound symbolic words would be likely to be processed not only as linguistic sounds but also as environmental sounds in the brain.  We found evidence to support this possibility, both in adults (Kanero et al., 2015) and 11-month-old infants, finding the involvement of the right superior temporal sulcus (R-STS) area which plays an important role in mapping and integrating sensory input from different modalities as well as in processing environmental sounds.  We are excited by the sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis because it  is linked to the origin and evolution of language. 

I would really like to understand the process and mechanism of language development in a broad, full scope, capturing the entire trajectory of lexical development: how infants start the endeavour in infancy, how they cultivate and expand their lexicon both in quantity and quality, and how they attain the mature and language-specific representation of the lexical system shared among adult speakers of the language they are growing up with. 

3) Any upcoming talks or presentations?

I will deliver a plenary talk at the next AISCL (International Association for the Study of Child Language) meeting in Pennsylvania in summer 2020.

4) A preferred weblink

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