Live chat with Babylab language researchers Katie and Silke

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Hello and welcome to our 32nd live chat with Katie and Silke from Lancaster University Babylab, where they both study first language acquisition in babies and toddlers. We’ve been on a roll recently with live chats about baby language, communication, signing, acquisition and bilingualism (check this page to browse through all of our previous chats), so Silke and Katie have joined us at a perfect time to answer some of our yet unanswered questions. Among these, how are babies able to acquire a new language and learn when a word ends and another one starts? How are categories formed in the mind of babies and are they affected by the language we use?

Read below to find out!

Q: Can you both tell us a bit more about your work on language acquisition? How do babies first work out that words are words? And why do they learn some words first, rather than others?
Katie: To answer the first question, babies use cues in what they hear to work out where words start and end. For example, they might use stress cues. English words tend to have the stress on the first syllable, like “table”, so it’s likely that a stressed syllable indicates the start of a word. They can also track which sounds appear together. Vowels tend to appear in the middle of words, for example, with consonants at the end. Then, they can combine all these cues with what they see at the time to work out that they’re dealing with a word that refers to an object (e.g., the sounds of the word “ball” and the colourful round object in front of them”). And you’re completely right – some words are learned before others, and this pattern tends to hold across children. Early-learned words tend to be very frequent (e.g., “mummy”) and tend to label things that babies see often e.g., “feet”)
@Katie, but how do they know that? Are they born knowing it? Or do they work it out? If so, how? It seems amazing to me really that babies learn language at all!
Katie: very good question. Some people argue that babies are born knowing about these cues to word boundaries. However, other people (this is the approach I favour) believe that babies are such powerful learners that they can track these “statistical regularities” from birth. So, if a baby hears a language in which all words end in “-ts” [this is a made-up example!], then they’ll start to learn that if they hear “-ts” then what comes before it is the middle of a word. Whereas if all the words they hear end in “-ed”, then they’ll assume what comes before “-ed” is the middle of a word.  There are other clever things babies can do to work out what words mean. For example, they tend to link new words with new things that they see; so if they see a toy car, a toy cow, and a completely new toy, and hear a new word like “blicket!”, they’ll link the new word to the new toy.
@Katie, babies are amazing!
Katie: Babies are AMAZING! We’re doing demonstrations of babies word learning at Manchester museum this weekend if anyone wants to come and have a go!
@Katie: So how does this work with learning their first few words? At the point my son could say about 5 words, he started using the word ‘babar’, which he consistently and reliably used to mean ‘light’ (as in lightswitch). It’s not related to anything we said to do with lights, so do babies sometimes just make up their own words?
Katie: Babies often pronounce words in a very different way to the way adults do! Although families often have pet names for things (my family called a bridge in the village I grew up in the “wibbly wobbly”!) the different pronunciations babies have are usually down to their motor development. That is, we know that babies understand words months before they can produce them, because making linguistic sounds is very complicated. For example to make a “t” sound, you have to be able to place your tongue precisely behind your teeth, push air behind it and then release the air suddenly, and remember not to activate your vocal cords! That’s very complex.
@Katie: So ‘babar’ could just have been him trying to say ‘light’, even though it sounds totally different to us?
Katie: Yes, exactly. The “mispronunciations” children make are actually systematic, which is fascinating. They tend to substitute the same kinds of sounds for each other, e.g. “l” for “y”, because they’re produced in the same part of the mouth. Which shows they understand something about how the sounds *should* be formed, but that they don’t quite have the articulatory skills to produce them yet.

Q: How/when do kids tend to use “I” and “mine” correctly? What I mean is if I say “it’s yours” to my daughter to denote something is hers she will also say “it’s yours” to mean hers. It can get very confusing! She’s only 2, but is this fairly common and something they just figure out?
Silke: Yes, that’s a fairly common “error” you see in children that age. It just reflects how they learn a lot of language by imitating their parents. She will eventually get it right. It might be interesting for you to observe whether this “error” is more common when she imitates you or whether he also produces the wrong form when she’s trying to say something new.  I’ve seen the same confusion of mine and yours in German. Some people have also suggested that kids get “mine” right when they want to stress that something belongs to THEM… For example, when they argue with their siblings 😉

Q: Have you done much work on the use of “parentese” to talk to babies? I think people tend to end up speaking in the third person a lot. Do you know if there has been any research into how this helps/hinders grammar acquisition? It is a way around the “mine” issue, but does it slow down learning?
Silke: I’m not aware of any specific studies looking at some parents’ use of third person instead of first or second person. I wouldn’t think that this would really help because in the end they have to also learn to distinguish first and second person – and they do! Also, I do know that children don’t only learn from the language that’s directly addressed to them. They also learn from overhearing conversations. So, hearing other people use first and second person might be useful and parents don’t always use a specific register. In some cultures parents don’t even really speak to babies because they think it would be sort of useless, but these babies also end up learning language. On the other hand, it is important that parents speak to their babies, of course, and there is quite a lot of evidence suggesting that linguistic input matters a lot! That also means that in those cultures where parents don’t tend to talk to their babies, these babies will still get linguistic input from their siblings and from overhearing other people talk to each other. One study showed that even in the Netherlands, where parents tend to talk to their babies quite a lot, only 20% of the linguistic input these babies get comes from language directly addressed to them.
@Silke – I’ll bear that in mind when I’m talking to my partner and we think our daughter isn’t listening!
Silke: yep, and you’ll be surprised how much they still pick up 😉

Q: I am interested in knowing more about language development in environments with more than 2 languages and how to maintain the parents language spoken at home.
Silke: It’s typically best if each parent just uses their native language when they talk to the child. Otherwise the child will be confused and they also learn best when they are exposed to a native speaker. Plus, there’s usually no harm in learning two languages. It also helps if the child has contact with other people, especially other children, who speak the language not spoken in the environment. Say, it would be good for a Chinese-English bilingual in England to also meet other kids who speak Chinese. But, of course, parents might also have a third common language and should use that when they talk to each other. Usually bilingualism or even trilingualism doesn’t hurt!
Katie: Equally, if parents speak their native languages to their child, but not the language of the country they live in, then children will start to pick up that language once they start nursery. Also, there are several studies that suggest that bilingualism is beneficial overall, so don’t be scared of giving it a go!

Q: How much time does it take a child to pick up some of another language? We spent 4 months in Thailand when my son was younger (14-18months). He played with Thai kids a lot, but he was only saying individual words in English at the time and no idea if he said any Thai words. Will he find Thai easier to learn in the future?
Katie: At 14 months, children are just beginning to learn their first words and some children at that age don’t produce any at all. However, even if your son didn’t say any Thai words, he may have learned something about them. However it’s unlikely that he’ll have learned any of the grammar, as babies don’t start producing grammatical sentence until around 2. So, it’s possible that some of what your son learned would make learning Thai words easier now, but the relatively short amount of exposure would mean he’d be learning the grammar more or less from scratch. What’s really great is that he had exposure to a different culture at such a young age!
@Katie, no, I didn’t think he’s managed the grammar, I was thinking more about the sounds of the language, as it’s a tonal language. I did a Mandarin class for a bit and found the tones really hard. I wondered if hearing it at an impressionable age would make a difference.
Katie: It might well! We know that younger children pick up language more easily than adults. Silke and I aren’t sure about how much babies will retain from exposure so young, though – an interesting study to do in the future!
Silke: one of our PhD students at Lancaster will probably look into that: she wants to see if and when we lose the ability to hear tone and/or if we can relearn to hear tone. She’s probably also going to look at how bilingual children deal with two languages if only one uses tone.
Katie: In general, bilingual studies are challenging because it’s well-established that the amount of exposure you have to a language strongly affects the way you learn and use it. So, when we design bilingual studies it’s important to keep track of which languages children hear, and for how long. There are some exciting bilingual projects going on in a project Silke and I are working on []

Q: If you’ve got a child who only hears the native language of the country they live in at home, but you’d like them to learn a second language, is there an optimum age for doing that? And is there a cut-off when it becomes more difficult (I always thought starting at 11 in school was far too late!)?
Silke: There’s no clear cut-off point, but the earlier the better. On the other hand, very early exposure might not be THAT helpful. It’s most important that kids are first exposed to one, two, or three native languages and learn those properly. Then second language learning can build on that. There’s also a lot of individual variation when it comes to learning a second language. Some people can still pick up accents at the age of 18. Some might always keep their native accent even when they start early.

Q: Is there any evidence that if you pick up regional accents easily in your native language, you’ll find it easier to pick up an authentic sounding accent in a second language?
Silke: I’m not sure if there are any studies, but my guess would be that yes, if you’re generally good at picking up accents, you’ll also be more likely to learn a non-native accent. And this probably interacts with the age at which you’re exposed to a second language. So, there are at least two factors at play.

Q: I really wish I could speak more languages (I’ve got O-level French). In an ideal world, what should I do to give my son maximum access to other languages (being as it’s too late to choose a dad who speaks another language!) 🙂
Katie: You and me both! The best thing to do is give him maximum exposure to another language, and a reason to speak it. For example, if there were a French-speaking toddler group, where he’d be speaking it to communicate with his peers. Even you speaking French to him (O-level counts!) would familiarise him with the sounds of French – although as Silke said, children learn better form native speakers. Isn’t Dora the Explorer in Spanish?
@Katie: Haha I think it is, I did a Spanish course a few years ago for fieldwork and the tutor recommended watching it!
Silke: Watching TV in the US has definitely helped me to learn some more English. I was already 20 though.
@Katie: We were watching Abadas the other day in Welsh (by accident) and he seemed uninterested when he couldn’t understand it.
Katie: If it was me, I would pick a language that I thought there was the most opportunity for my child to engage with. E.g., if they had lots of Mandarin-speaking friends, and there were Mandarin classes at school, then that’d be a great choice.

Q: I can speak some German, but I haven’t used it properly for a while. I think that if I tried to speak it to my son, I might be doing more harm than good, because I’m sure my accent and sentence construction are awful by now!
Silke: Yes, it would be more beneficial for your son to meet German kids or some bilinguals.
@Silke I do have a tendency to tell the German parents I know to keep speaking it in front of us!
Silke: That’s great and you never know what you and your son will learn from it.

Q: I am interested in whether shyness affects babies’ ability to link new words to new things.
Katie: A PhD student in our group is just writing up his thesis on this subject and from the data he’s got it looks like shyness does have some affect on the process of linking words to objects, but importantly not on overall vocabulary level (although the data is still being analysed, so don’t quote me!). It’s exciting, though, as it suggests shyer children may have different (but equally good!) ways of learning words.

Q: Do you do much experimental work?
Katie: I do a lot, yes, with babies from 10 months up to toddlers of about 3 years. Most involve simple game-type sessions, looking at pictures on a computer screen or playing with toys. There’s more info on our studies here. A lot of our studies at the Babylab in Lancaster use eyetrackers, which allow a computer to track where babies look and for how long. Babies sit on their parents’ lap and look at pictures or videos on a computer screen and a small box underneath the screen tracks where their pupils are relative to the picture. This seems simple but it’s incredibly useful: we know that babies will look for longer at things that interest them (the “novelty preference”), so that helps us work out what they’ve already learned. This helps us investigate how they group things in the world into categories. For example, if they see 10 pictures of different cats presented for 10s each on a screen, they’ll start getting bored and looking away. Then, if we show them a picture of a dog and they regain interest (i.e., they look for longer than at the previous cat pictures) we know that the babies have recognised that the dog picture is something new.
Silke: Most of my work is also experimental, but the kids are a bit older: 3-5 years old. We always try to design something that looks like a game. My most popular study had two talking dogs and it actually relates to your earlier question: children heard from one dog, e.g. “I’m eating a sandwich” and then I asked them what the dog was doing and they had to say “he’s eating a sandwich”. So, they had to switch from a first person pronoun “I” to a third person pronoun “he” and actually, sometimes even 4 year olds were still struggling a bit with that task.

Q: Do you think children are learning categories based on the language environment around them, or are they constructing their own categories?
Katie: You’ve hit on one of my favourite topics! The answer is both! Babies start forming categories based on what they see from about 3 months or even earlier according to some work. But we also know that the words babies learn affect the structure of those categories. A study in Lancaster Babylab (by Gert Westermann) has shown this: if you show pictures of invented animals in silence, one after another, then babies form a single category, but if you show them exactly the same pictures in the same order, but also give four of the pictures one label (eg., “look! it’s a blicket!”) and give the other four pictures a different label (“look! it’s a chatten!”), then babies learn two categories! Which is amazing, the only difference is that one group of children hear the labels and one doesn’t. This study shows that the words babies hear actually affect the way they perceive the world. It’s a mind boggler!
@Katie: So if I referred to each dog by its breed, they might never form the category ‘dog’?
Katie: Yes, if they never heard the word “dog” to refer to more than one example of that category, they wouldn’t learn the category. We know this from computational modelling, I should point out. It’s more interesting that that, still: they learn that the things they see can be members of more than one category; e.g., Collie vs. dog vs. animal. Categories like “dog” are known as basic level categories, and these tend to be learned first, probably because they’re informative without being over-specific.
@Katie: So if we used gender neutral pronouns and called everyone ‘person’, would children grow up to place less emphasis on gender?
Katie: Another interesting question. The evidence I know of shows that babies can tell the difference between male and female faces from around 3 months, so there’s a detectable perceptual difference. But arguably, it’s society that teaches children about gender. So if we treat things that look different (e.g. men and women) the same, and use the same word to refer to them, then this could affect the way we perceive the difference between them. Like all things cognitive it’s not going to be as simple as that, though!

@Silke and Katie: thank you for coming along to this chat and answering all our questions, it was great!
Silke: Thank you! Those were interesting question and I hope we could answer some of them. You can also email me if you have questions later on or if I can help with some more specific advice:
Katie: Same here, happy to answer any other questions by email:

nappy chat

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