Sometimes, it’s all in the questions you ask. Or the questions y’all ask. Or the ones you guys ask!

Those of us in psychology and assessment are very interested in the art of asking the right questions, and a great example from the field of linguistics has been circulating around the Internet in recent months. A dialect survey, based on work by Harvard professor Burt Vaux, has been developed into an interactive quiz by graphic artists at the New York Times, which published it in December 2013. Responses to the quiz generate maps that show the probability that the user hails from a specific region, state, or even city in the U.S.

The survey includes questions about the names of specific items (“What do you call a sweetened carbonated beverage?”) as well as pronunciations (“How do you pronounce ‘Aunt’?”). Each answer is association with a region, and there is a “heat map” for each question, as well as a “personal dialog map” for each individual user based on the sum of his or her responses to 25 questions.

“The data are fascinating,” says Katherine Wells, in her recent story about Vaux’s work in The Atlantic. “They reveal patterns of migration, unexpected linguistic kinships between regions, and the awesome variety of words we say and how we say them.”

An informal poll of users here at PAR headquarters suggests that the quiz can yield some amazingly accurate results—and we come from all over the U.S. Try the quiz yourself and see where it puts you on the map!
A new study from researchers at Northwestern University helps to better understand the powerful impact words have on infants.

While babies were watching the researchers intently, an experimenter used her forehead to turn on a light. She then allowed the infants to play with the light themselves to see if they would imitate this novel action. In a second group, the experimenter announced what she was doing, naming the activity with a nonsense word (“I’m going to blick the light”), before using her forehead to turn on the light. In this group, the infants were more likely to imitate the behavior. Researchers believe that the subjects in the study were more likely to see the behavior as an intentional event when it was paired with language, and thus, imitate it.

This points to the idea that infants as young as 14 months of age coordinate what they know about human behavior with their knowledge of language when they choose which actions to imitate. Infants’ observation skills, when paired with language, heighten their ability for understanding of intentions and actions. Without language to convey meaning, infants do not imitate these “strange” actions, allowing language to unlock a bigger world of social actions.

To read more about this study, see Developmental Psychology.