Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Language development under the microscope

This article on the BBC news website offers an insight into one approach to researching children's language development at the moment. As part of the "speechome project", Professor Deb Roy and his colleagues are collecting a quarter of a million hours of data. And the other figures are equally staggering:

"The first task we set for ourselves was to transcribe everything my son heard
or said from nine to 24 months," he says. He estimates that there is somewhere
between 10 to 12 million words of speech to transcribe. "For anyone that has
transcribed speech, they will know that is a laborious and slow process," he
says, with a degree of understatement.


And some initial observations that Roy has made seem to offer support to social interactive theories of language development. The BBC site explains:

By analysing the length, and hence complexity, of sentences spoken by caregivers
to his son, he believes that he has shown that adults subconsciously simplify
sentences until the child understands the word. Once it has been understood, the
adults then build up the complexity of the sentences containing the word. "We
essentially meet him at this point of the birth of the word and gently pull him
into language," he says.


Elsewhere, there's more support for interactive models of language acquisition. A report from UCLA suggests that adult-child conversations can potentially offer six times as much language development improvement as talking at a child (parent monologues/reading) or the child watching TV.

"Talk is powerful, but what's even more powerful is engaging a child in
meaningful interactions — the 'give and take' that is so important to the
social, emotional and cognitive development of infants and toddlers," says Dr.
Jill Gilkerson, language research director at LENA Foundation and a study
co-author.

"It is not enough to speak to children," Zimmerman adds.
"Parents should also engage them in conversation. Kids love to hear you speak,
but they thrive on trying speech out for themselves. Give them a chance to say
what's on their minds, even if it's 'goo goo gah.'"

And finally, in a piece of investigation that could win the No Sh*t Sherlock award for 2009, researchers at Seattle Children's Research Institute have discovered that when the TV is on people talk less and use fewer vocalisations, potentially harming the language development of children who are in the same environment. What is interesting about this is the observation that it's not so much the TV programmes that could damage the children's language (although In the Night Garden is the work of Satan as far as I'm concerned) but the effect watching TV has on the family's spoken interaction.

The study found that each hour of audible television was associated with
significant reductions in child vocalizations, vocalization duration, and
conversational turns. On average, each additional hour of television exposure
was also associated with a decrease of 770 words the child heard from an adult
during the recording session. This represented a seven percent decrease in words
heard, on average. There were significant reductions in both adult female and
male word counts. From 500 to 1,000 fewer adult words were spoken per hour of
audible television.

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