Here is the latest write-up from our chat with researchers Sam Durrant, Caroline Rowland and Michelle Peter from the Language 0-5 Project. The Child Language Study Centre brings together researchers who are interested in various aspects of children’s language development, from the earliest stages of babble and gestures, through word learning, to how they master complex sentence structures. So this chat was our chance to cram in one hour the endless questions we’ve always had about child language, from how does learning occur, how to raise a bilingual child, and what’s the deal with accents, how are they formed and when? And plenty more. But before starting with all the questions, this is a bit of introduction from Caroline, Michelle and Sam
Caroline: I’m Caro and I’m a professor at Liverpool Uni and I spend pretty much most of my working life studying how children learn to talk. Michelle and Sam are researchers on one of my projects – Language 05- and I’m sure they’ll tell you a bit about themselves.
Michelle : Hi everyone, I’m a child language researcher at the University of Liverpool. I completed my PhD in language acquisition earlier this year and I now work on a project that will follow the language development of 80 children for the next four years. It’s a great job!
Sam: Hi, I’m Sam and like Michelle I finished my PhD on language development last year (in fact my viva was a year ago today!) and I am also a researcher on the Language 0-5 Project. It’s been great getting to know the families over the last year and seeing already how much the babies have changed
Q: I’d love to know a bit more about how you set studies up, and what they involve?
Sam: There are a number of different types of studies that we run but I’ll tell you about the most recent one that we have started as it uses the eye tracker. The eye tracker is great for research as it does a lot of the work for us. Before we had eye trackers we would hand code videos to find out what children were looking at. In this new study we are looking at how children might learn new words by using what they already know. We show them pairs of pictures on a screen where one is familiar (e.g. a car) and one is of something unusual that they are unlikely to know yet (I have used a garlic press for this in the past). We might then ask the child ‘Look at the car! Do you like it?’ or ‘Look at the pifo! Can you see it?’. The eye tracker is then able to monitor which of the pictures they are looking at after they have heard the label for the object. As you might expect children are really great at looking at the picture of a car when they hear the word “car”. But what we are interested in is what happens when they hear the word “pifo”. One idea is that when they hear the word ‘pifo’ and can see a car and a picture of something they don’t know, they will ‘exclude’ the car as being the ‘target’ because otherwise you would have said ‘car’.
@Sam, do you find that they learn the name for the unfamiliar object whilst they’re sat there with you saying it? Can they acquire language that quickly, or does it need longer term reinforcement?
Sam: What you are asking is exactly the question we are exploring! What we do know is that children will look (or choose, if we do this with real objects) an object they don’t know to match a word they don’t know at around 18-months. At the moment the research suggests that it takes a little longer for the new word to be learned. By 24 months, in the same set-up, children will ‘Look at the pifo’ when it is labelled next to a car AND are beginning to do this when it is next to another object they don’t know.
Thanks @Sam, that’s really interesting! Does language acquisition speed up as children get older?
Sam: It’s difficult to answer this question. What is likely is that children are well practised in learning words as they get older so have fine tuned these skills as well as having better memory abilities (among other things) as they get older too.
Michelle: Sam just told you about one example of an experimental study we are doing, so now I would like to give you a brief overview of another type of “naturalistic” data that we are also collecting. We ask parents to take home video-cameras so that they can record play sessions of them interacting with their baby. We’ll be able to look at how these parents interact with their babies during this time, and the type, variety and amount of language that they use. We also ask them to take home an audio-recording device so that they can record a “typical” 12-hour day. We have a special programme that calculates lots of interesting statistics including the number of adult words that were produced in that time, the number of child vocalisations, and also the number of conversational turns. It’s really clever! The reason that we are interested in this type of naturalistic data is because it can tell us what a child’s early language environment is like, and this is often a really good predictor of their later language development. So for example we know from studies that have tracked children’s language longitudinally, that children who hear lots of language, that is diverse, and directed specifically towards them (as opposed to speech that is overheard) when they are very young, tend to have larger vocabularies by the time they enter school. Interestingly, this effect seems to carry on even further into childhood.
@Michelle, so is this why children aren’t supposed to learn language very well from TV? (I’m sure I read that there was a study on that)
Michelle: You’re right, there are many studies that have explored this question! TV can be a great addition to children’s input (here’s an interesting article from one of the researchers who works with us, Gemma Taylor «link»). However, it’s by no means a substitute. Children don’t learn language just by hearing words, they also need all sorts of other cues to help them do this, and these are cues (e.g., eye-gaze) that a TV cannot provide.
Q: This may be a question too big to answer, but how DO children learn language? Are there phases of different processes going on? And do all children do things in the same way and the same order?
Caro: The short answer is “we don’t know how children learn language”. It’s a huge mystery. Language is perhaps the most complex task you will ever master. You have to learn to distinguish speech sounds from non-meaningful sounds (dadada from laughing), to learn the meaning of 10000s of words and to learn how to put words together into an infinite number of sentences. But we are starting to get some glimmers about how children do it. First, they are incredibly good at tuning into speech sounds. Babies only a few moments after birth (perhaps even before birth) can recognise the “tune” of their own language and distinguish it from other languages. Also babies are really good at working out what speakers “intend” to say by for example, following eye gaze – this is something that amazes me! And they are also really good at pattern recognition which helps in learning grammar (e.g. a/the always come before “nouns”). So in essence, babies have a “suite” of really clever skills and abilities that together allow them to learn language. The exciting part of our job is figuring out what these skills are!
Q: Does that mean if you spent your pregnancy in another country, surrounded by people speaking another language, that language would also seem ‘familiar’ to the newborn baby? Would they be better at learning that language later in life?
Caro: I hadn’t actually thought of that before but yes. Although mum’s voice is the loudest when a baby is in the womb (if you think about it, mum’s voice is coming from inside her – just above the baby!), babies can hear other voices too. So yes, if a baby can hear two languages he can learn to recognise both languages and – which I find fascinating – distinguish between them based on the language’s sound!
Q: So if a baby is born early, is speech development effected even if the child is otherwise healthy?
Caro: The answer is “possibly”. Pre-term babies can be slightly delayed in a lot of areas of cognitive development, including language. But it depends on lots of things: why they were pre-term, how pre-term they were etc.
@Caro: Interesting, my baby was born at 23 weeks. He had no long term complications but seems to be slow in his speech even for his corrected age. At 19 months he understands a lot but has not said mum yet, but can say car, cat, dad, dog.
Caro: That makes complete sense! 23 weeks is very early! But it doesn’t sound like he has any particular problem – it’s not *that* unusual for a 19 month old boy to say only a few words. Unfortunately the stereotype is true – boys do tend to be a bit slower at language than girls, though they catch up later!
He was mostly tube fed until he was 8 months old I wonder how that would effect speech development
Caro: tube fed until 8 months? Then it’s astonishing that he is talking at all. You must have worked really hard to surround him with language. I hope he’s doing well now?
@Caro: Yes, he’s doing amazing and I really try to talk all the time. So tube feeding will impact speech development?
Caro: I don’t actually know that much about tube feeding, but I do know that children tube fed for a long time may need the help of a speech and language therapist as they have less time to practice oral-motor control, which you need to produce speech sounds accurately.
Q: How do children ‘unlearn’ words they’ve learned wrong? Sometimes my son mistakenly attaches a new word to the wrong thing (e.g., on one occasion I was trying to warn him to avoid barbed wire, and he concluded that ‘Ow’ was the name for barbed wire. But it only lasted for a day or so, and he stopped calling it that.)
Sam: I think I am right in saying that this would be through a process of reinforcement. Initially the links between words and objects are quite weak and these strengthen with experience. After your son linked ‘ow’ and the object barbed wire (quite logically, of course), I guess you probably corrected him when he said ‘ow’ and told him it was “barbed wire”. In that case, he will have formed a new link with that object and as this one will have been heard more times and thus strengthened, the link between ‘ow’ and barbed wired would have weakened.
Q: I am interested in bringing up bilingual children, specifically when only one parent speaks both languages, so English is the language spoken 95% of the time. Will children learn a second language easily if they’re exposed to it, even if it’s just a small proportion of the speech they hear?
Caro: It is *great* to raise a bilingual child – there are all sorts of advantages. However, if you are raising the child in a country that speaks one language, it is quite important to provide a *lot* of the other language in the home… Have a look at this website for information: [link]
@Caro, So how is it best to introduce the new language, as we can’t really speak it between ourselves and my other half often forgets and speaks English instead of Welsh to her.
Caroline: The Welsh speaker really needs to make an effort to speak Welsh most, if not all of the time. Also frequent holidays in Wales – surrounded by Welsh speakers – will help!
Q: Is it possible for a child to not ‘want’ to talk? There’s a little boy in my family who understands things well but only communicates with grunts and body language which mum seems to understand. He’s just turned 2 so not seen a speech therapist yet and has no other known problems.
Caro: 2 years does seem a bit old for not saying any words. Does he have any sounds (e.g. dadada, mamama)?
@Caro: He says ‘ya’ and ‘no’ and will shake/nod his head as appropriate, he’ll do a couple of animal noises too like ‘tweet’ when he sees a bird but nothing other than that. He does get frustrated very quickly and I wondered if that might be the cause. His health visitor suggested therapy but mum declined.
Caro: I would strongly advice talking to a health professional, even if just to get reassurance. The Liverpool Speech and Language Therapy team at Liverpool Community NHS have drop-in sessions. Local SLTs may have the same, so his mum could just pop along to have a chat.
Q: How does teaching a child to sign affect speech development?
Sam: This is something I am actually very interested in (but don’t know much about just yet). The evidence in terms of the impact on speech development is unclear, it’s hard to know if mums that sign to their children are mums that also talk a lot to their children making it difficult to identify what is influencing the children’s language.
Q: Are there sensitive periods for learning language? And if so, what are they?
Caro: There are definitely sensitive periods, but we don’t know why! It is much easier to learn language in childhood. And some languages seem almost impossible to learn in adulthood – Welsh for example! But the sensitive periods seem to be different for different bits of language. To learn to produce speech sounds accurately, you really need to hear a language early in life. That is why there are so few people who can speak a 2nd language without any accent at all.
Q: My son, who is 3, is language delayed. We have been told he’s about 8 months behind where they would expect him to be. I was the same as was my mum. Recently he has started pre-school and is really struggling to interact with the other children and is quick to thrash out. He’s also started doing it at home if he doesn’t understand what I am saying or I don’t understand what he is trying to communicate. Can you recommend and strategies to deal with the frustration?
Caroline: Although the kid may not have autism, the autism support groups and websites often have lots of tips about dealing with frustration since children with autism often feel frustrated and lash out… so I would recommend having a look at those and perhaps even joining a support group. Also there are some good Alternative/Augmented communication systems that sometimes can be taught – e.g. cards, gestures etc, and these often reduce frustration. If the boy is seeing a speech and language therapist and/or a health visitor, you could ask about these!
Q: I’ve noticed that friends who live somewhere different to where they were born have the accent of where they moved to if they were under about 15 when they moved. Is that about right? So if I want my son to have the option of becoming an amazing linguist, we should go on lots of long foreign holidays while he’s young?
Caro: Yes that’s right. We moved from Nottingham when my children were 5 and 7, and they adopted a Liverpool accent within 2 weeks. On the other hand, I moved from Surrey to Manchester when I was 19, have lived “up north” ever since, but still sound exactly like I did 20 years ago. But unfortunately I don’t think that long foreign holidays will necessarily turn your son into an amazing linguist! Sorry!!
@Caroline, that’s interesting! I live in Essex but am from the West Midlands – my daughter is picking up my accent at the moment because I’m the one she spends most time with. At some point I guess she’ll start to elongate her vowels.
Caroline: Yes – once she starts school, she’ll pick up the local accent. It may actually be quite a lot to do with “fitting in” as well as the amount of time your daughter spends with you vs her peers. It’s amazing how influential attitude is in learning a language. Children who are very motivated to learn two languages (e.g. because it is the only way they can talk with a beloved granny, for example) tend to learn more quickly.
Michelle: One theory is that the motivation behind communicating to others is to socially align with each other. Accents are part of our identity, so we might change it to fit in, or hang onto it to retain our sense of individuality.
Sam: I agree that it’s about fitting in. Last year we moved from Plymouth to Liverpool with two very southern accented children (one started in reception and the other in year 3). I now have a VERY northern accented older child who has friends that have strong accents and a mild accented younger child, whose friends don’t have strong accents! (Purely anecdotal but fascinating).
Q: On the topic of accents, is there anything that makes some people more susceptible to picking up accents than others? Mine seems to change depending on where I am and so does my sister’s. I wonder sometimes if it’s because our family come from all over so we’ve always heard lots of different accents, but our brother’s doesn’t seem to change like ours do!
Caroline: Accents are the part of language that we really don’t understand at all. Why is it so hard to learn to mimic a different accent, when it is relatively simple (given enough time) to learn the words of another language. Another of the great mysteries. Just to add another “interesting fact”, apparently sign language users have accents too!
Sam: My PhD was looking at accents, although not really about talking with an accent but understanding words said in an accent. It’s amazing how quickly we can understand someone speaking in a different accent to our own – even when we don’t have much experience of that accent. It takes only a few minutes of talking with that person in most cases (though some accents are renowned for being harder than others of course).
Q: Is it a good idea to repeat back to children what it is that they are saying? My daughter is 22 months and very chatty, she puts lots of words together and gives me a running commentary on everything. The thing is I tend to repeat to her what she has just said to me. In my head I think this is to reinforce her learning, and also because sometimes it’s not very clear. But will she start to think that that’s what you should do when you’re talking to people?
Caroline: Absolutely, it does reinforce language. But if you could “expand” on it as well that would be even better. So if she says “doggie”, say something like “yes it’s a brown doggie, isn’t it?” That will not only reinforce the word “dog” but teach her how to use it in an sentence. So you are teaching vocabulary and grammar at the same time – a double whammy! It’s definitely something we all do (though not all mums in all cultures interestingly). So I don’t know where it comes from. It’s part of what we call “Child Directed Speech” – a special type of speech we tend to use with babies and young children!
Q: As a wrap-up question, what can we do as parents to help and encourage our children to learn a language? (If that’s not too big a question?)
Michelle: There are lots of things that you can do. Mainly: 1) Talk all of the time. 2) Talk about what your child is interested in and what they’re focusing on (e.g., if they’re looking at a train say “Trains go choo choo!) 3) Respond every time they say something even if you don’t understand what it is that they’re saying.
From all of us at Nappy Science Gang, thank you so much to Sam, Caro and Michelle for this wonderful chat on children language, it has been so interesting!
Michelle: It’s been lovely speaking to you and hearing all of your interesting questions. Thanks so much!
Sam: Yes, it’s been really interesting and we’ve had some great questions.
Caroline: You’re welcome. Thanks for great questions. Good luck with the I’m a Scientist initiative – great idea! I’ve enjoyed it!