Talker familiarity and spoken word recognition in school-age children

JCL blosg post - Jun 15Blog post written by Susannah Levi based on an article in Journal of Child Language 

When people listen to speech, they hear two types of information:  what is being said (such as “That’s a ball”) and who said it (such as MOMMY).

Prior studies have shown that when adults understand speech better when it is spoken by a familiar voice. In this study, we tested whether school-age children also understand speech better when listening to a familiar voice. First, children learned the voices of three previously unknown speakers over five days. Following this voice familiarization, children listened to words mixed with background noise and were asked to tell us what they heard. These words were spoken both by the now familiar speakers and by another set of unfamiliar speakers.

Our results showed that, like adults, children understand speech better when it is produced by a familiar voice. Interestingly, this benefit of voice familiarity only occurred when listening to highly familiar words (such as “book” or “cat”) and not to words that are less familiar to school-age children (such as “fate” or “void”). We also found that the benefit of familiarity with a voice was most noticeable in children with the poorest performance, suggesting that familiarity with a voice may be especially useful for children who have difficulty understanding spoken language.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Talker familiarity and spoken word recognition in school-age children’ here

Measuring a very young child’s language and communication skills in developing countries

JCL Blog Jun 15Blog post written by Katie Alcock based on an article in Journal of Child Language 

The best way to find out about a very young child’s language and communication is to ask their parents – but in developing countries parents can’t always fill in a written questionnaire – so we have created a very successful interview technique to do this.

To start with, we wanted to visit homes close to the Wellcome Trust Unit in Kilifi Town, Coastal Kenya but even in town, there are few paved roads.  We went out in a four-wheel-drive from the Unit in to a Kiswahili-speaking family home; homes here range from concrete to mud walls, from tin to thatch rooves.

Families in Kilifi are used to nosy questions from researchers but we weren’t sure how easy they’d find it to talk about their children’s language. Parents worldwide find it very difficult to answer open-ended questions about words their young child knows. When asked simple yes/no questions about individual words though, we think the information is accurate.

The family we saw that day had a 15 month old boy. For children of this age we ask parents  about words for animals and noises, foods, household objects, toys, verbs. Children often know few words at this age so we also ask about gestures such as waving and (very important in this culture) shaking hands.

“Can your child understand or say the following words… mee mee [what a goat says]; boo boo [what a cow says]… maji [water]… ndizi  [banana]… taa [lamp]” “Yes! He says “taa” and he thinks the moon is a lamp too, he says “taa” when he sees the moon!”.

Bingo! A classic example of overextension – a child using a word for one thing to refer to something similar. We were unsure when we started what kind of answers parents would give and how patient they would be with quite a lengthy questionnaire (over 300 words, even for 8 month old babies).  Our researchers didn’t know either whether local parents would be aware of children making animal noises – like “baa” and “moo”. It turned out this was very much a “thing” that parents noticed – the baby word for “cat” is “nyau”.

We do this research through the MRC unit because we need good tools to assess how child is affected by factors such as HIV, cerebral malaria, and malnutrition development.

We found out find that parents were very accurate in telling us how well their child communicates, and very patient! They told us about the same kinds of mistakes children make learning other languages. We also went on to use our questionnaire to look at whether children exposed to HIV had delayed language compared to their peers.

Read the full article ‘Developmental inventories using illiterate parents as informants: Communicative Development Inventory (CDI) adaptation for two Kenyan languages’ here

Caregivers provide more labeling responses to infants’ pointing than to infants’ object-directed vocalizations

JCL June 2015Blog post written by Julie Gros-Louis based on an article in a recent issue of Journal of Child Language

One main context for language learning is in social interactions with parents and caregivers. Infants produce vocal and gestural behaviors and caregivers respond to these behaviors, which supports language development. Prior studies have shown a strong relationship between infants’ pointing gestures and language outcomes. One reason for this association is that parents translate the apparent meaning of infants’ points, thus providing infants with language input associated with their pointing behavior. In contrast to the relationship between pointing and language development, infants’ overall vocal production is not related to language outcomes. One possible explanation for the different association between pointing and language outcomes, compared to vocalizations and language outcomes, is that pointing may elicit more verbal responses from social partners that are facilitative for language learning.

To examine this possibility, we observed twelve-month-olds during free play interactions with their mothers and fathers. At this age, infants do not have many words in their vocabulary and thus communicate primarily with gestures and vocalizations. We compared parents’ verbal responses to infants’ pointing gestures and object-directed vocalizations. Results showed that infants’ pointing elicited more verbal responses from parents compared to object-directed vocalizations. Also, these verbal responses were mainly object labels. These results may help explain why pointing is associated with indices of language acquisition, but the production of vocalizations is not. Furthermore, the study highlights the importance of examining moment-to-moment interactions to uncover social mechanisms that support language development.

We invite to read the full article ‘Caregivers provide more labeling responses to infants’ pointing than to infants’ object-directed vocalizations’ here


Losing a language in childhood

JCL blog post May 2015Blog post written by Cristina Flores based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of Child Language

What happens if a bilingual child with immigration background moves (back) to the country of origin of his/her family and loses contact with the language that until this moment was his/her dominant language? Does the non-used language disappear from the child’s mind?

This new paper analyses such a situation of remigration of a bilingual child and its consequence for language development. The analysis is based upon a longitudinal study of language attrition in a bilingual child, Ana, who grew up in Germany and moved to the country of origin of her parents, Portugal, at the age of nine. Since she has few opportunities to contact with German after remigration, Ana experiences a DOMINANCE SHIFT from German, the (until now) dominant language, to Portuguese, her heritage language.

Data collection, based on oral interviews and story retelling, started three weeks after the child’s immersion in the Portuguese setting and ended eighteen months later. Results show first effects of language attrition after five months of reduced exposure to German, namely lexical difficulties and deviant syntactic omissions. At the end of the study the informant showed severe word retrieval difficulties and was unable to produce complete sentences in German. The findings thus confirm the conclusions of other studies on child language attrition, which attest to strong effects of attrition when the loss of contact with the target language occurs in childhood, i.e. before the age of eleven/twelve. It remains an open question if the language «comes back» easily after re-immersion in a German environment.

Read the full article ‘Losing a language in childhood: a longitudinal case study on language attrition’ here.

Can Audio Storybooks Improve Children’s Second-Language Accent?

JCL Blog Mar 15Blog post written by Terry Kit-Fong Au based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of Child Language 

With globalization, speaking more than one language is useful.  No wonder many children are learning a second or even a third language.  The younger children are when they start geting input from native speakers, the better their accent will be.  Yet because of resource constraints, interaction with native speakers is not always possible – especially for children learning a foreign language that is not the societal language (e.g., children learning English in much of Asia and Latin America).  Audios are commonly used as an affordable substitute.  But do they work?

Research recently published in the Journal of Child Language has revealed the usefulness of audio storybooks.  First-and second-grade children in Hong Kong – whose native language was Cantonese Chinese – listened to audio storybooks either in English or Mandarin Chinese.  To give children more diverse input, each audio storybook contained six recordings of the same very short story read by different native speakers.

These Cantonese Chinese children listened to a few dozens of such audio storybooks at home in only one of their non-native languages: either English or Mandarin Chinese.  Those who had listened to Mandarin stories improved significantly more in their Mandarin accent than those who had listened to English stories.  Those who had listened to English stories improved in their English accent somewhat more than those who had listened to Mandarin stories.

Audio storybooks may well prove to be a cost-effective strategy to enrich the language environment of young second-language learners.

We invite you to read the full article  ‘Can non-interactive language input benefit young second-language learners?‘ TERRY KIT-FONG AU, WINNIE WAILAN CHAN, LIAO CHENG, LINDA S. SIEGEL and RICKY VAN YIP TSO (2015)



The ubiquity of frequency effects in first language acquisition

JCL 2015 CoverBlog post written by Ben Ambridge based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of Child Language 

Pretty much every kind of human (and, for that matter, animal) learning shows frequency effects: the more we hear or see something, the better we learn it, remember it, and even like it. But in the domain of children’s language acquisition, both the existence and meaningfulness of frequency effects have proved controversial, particularly because they have implications for the (in)famous nature-nurture debate. In this target article, we argue that frequency effects can be found absolutely everywhere in language acquisition, from the level of abstract strings to the level of abstract syntactic cues. In fact, high frequency items are not only early-acquired and resistant to errors (when children are attempting to produce them), but also cause errors, when children use them in place of lower-frequency targets.

What does all this mean in terms of theory? Well, we argue that while frequency effects are often taken as evidence for constructivist/usage-based accounts, they are not necessarily incompatible with nativist/UG accounts in principle. However, because these accounts draw a sharp distinction between the lexicon and grammar, for instance assuming that even infants’ grammatical rules are formulated in terms of syntactic categories and phrases rather than individual lexical items, they do not straightforwardly explain frequency effects that cut across these levels of representation.

There are commentaries too; nine of them, in fact. While most of them are generally supportive, many point out that the real trick is going to be disentangling the effects of frequency from those of other factors (e.g., serial position, communicative intent) with which frequency frequently interacts. In our response, we acknowledge that this disentangling work has only just begun, but conclude that – nevertheless – frequency effects are real, and are therefore something that any serious theory of language acquisition – of whatever theoretical stripe – must explain.

We invite you to read the entire article ‘The ubiquity of frequency effects in first language acquisition’ and the commentaries that follow here.

She refers therefore she is: Morphosyntax and pragmatics in referential communication


Post written by Aylin C. Küntay, Koç University, Istanbul & Utrecht University, Utrecht

Based on an upcoming keynote talk to be given at IASCL 2014 this week (14th – 18th July, Amsterdam)

Referential communication is talking about things and people, an essential ability upon which many human communicative interactions build. To be able to communicate effectively, speakers and addressees should concur on what they are talking about. Although this sounds trivial, even adults sometimes have trouble in pinpointing exactly what their interlocutor has in mind, or might fail to express their referential intentions in the clearest way.

The evidence we have about children’s referential abilities is mixed. An 18-month-old can be quite effective in making us pick the right diaper with the desired picture out from a heap of clean diapers. A 5-year-old, on the other hand, might lose us among the many characters he introduces in his retelling of a movie. Many factors distinguish the situation of the diaper-picker from the film-narrator. Yet in our methodological and analytical frameworks, we forget that the act of referential behavior is embedded in certain contexts and geared towards a particular type of interactive experience. My talk will focus on the contextual conditions that render toddlers and preschoolers referentially (in)effective.

For my keynote talk in the conference organized by the IASCL in 2014 to take place in Amsterdam, I will focus on the contributions interactive contexts, interactive goals, and interactive partners make to the development of referential communication. I will introduce data from narrative interactions and conversational discourse of children in addition to experimental studies.

These studies show how naturalistic interactions with others and their feedback impact (monolingual) children’s development of referential communication. Infants are presented by their caregivers with richly textured patterns of referential sets, where the referent remains constant across extended stretches of discourse. This constancy is accompanied by integration of nonverbal cues such as gestures, gazes, and touches in addition to linguistic expansions and reductions regarding the referent.

Preschool children display morphosyntactically more sophisticated and referentially clearer structures when they build their discourse structures conversationally rather than via being prompted by picturebooks, when they assume more audience-oriented interactive goals, and when they are trained on referential effectiveness. In brief, children need to learn to form a variety of (often language-specific) expressive devices in addition to learning how to use these devices for particular interactive contexts and discourse functions.

Discover more about the IASCL 2014 here


An interview with the Journal of Child Language Special Issue Editors

JCL Blog Post May 2014Q & A with Johanne Paradis and Elma Blom, Guest Editors of a forthcoming special issue of Journal of Child Language.

Thank you both for agreeing to answer a few questions for Cambridge Extra.

 Firstly, can you explain to us why you chose to focus on the topic of ‘Age of Acquisition Effects in Child Language?’

The popular wisdom about success in language learning is: “the earlier the better”.  What the impact is of the age when people start to learn a language on their ultimate success in learning that language has also been a major focus for researchers.  When it comes to adults, research and the popular wisdom are largely in sync; most of the time, adults never learn to speak a second language exactly like native-speakers of that language.  However, little is known about age of language learning effects during childhood. In other words: it is clear that children are better language learners than adults, but are infants also better than toddlers, and toddlers better than older children? Does starting to learn a language at a later age impact all dimensions of linguistic ability equally, e.g., pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary?  Older children are often faster language learners than younger children, but does this mean they achieve better success in the long run or not?

Also important to consider is that some children learn a language later under different circumstances.  For example, deaf children of hearing parents often experience a delay in exposure to any language because their parents do not know sign language and the children cannot access oral language input.  For these children, learning their first language might not begin at birth like it does for other children.  Internationally adopted children often abruptly stop learning their first language and then begin to learn their ‘second first language’ as infants or toddlers.  Children in migrant families often learn their heritage language exclusively at first, and thus, do not begin to learn the societal language until they are older.  There has been some research on these different populations of children who start to learn either their first or their second language after birth, but we need more research in order to fully understand the language acquisition outcomes of children in these different circumstances.

Age of acquisition effects in child language are not only interesting from a theoretical point of view – understanding how maturational changes affect language development – but they are also relevant from a societal point of view. In many societies there is an increasing number of children who are exposed to a new language sometime during childhood because of adoption or migration, and it is important to know what special educational support these children might need, because often they not only have to learn a new language but also have to achieve academically in this new language.  The popular notion of the “earlier the better” can work against these children in the sense that it is often assumed that they will learn a new language effortlessly and perfectly over a short period of time.  However, we actually need more research to know more about what we can expect of children’s language acquisition when it begins later than birth.

What contribution do you hope the special issue will make?

There are existing studies on age of acquisition effects in child language, but so far, the findings are rather scattered and the number of studies is small in comparison to the studies on adult language learners. What we hope is that, through this special issue, we will be able to bring together a collection of studies on this topic that will provide not only an up-to-date overview, but also enhance our insight by enabling comparison of the findings across studies. One aspect we particularly like about this special issue is that we can include a large number of different studies – our target is 15 – much more than in many other journal special issues.

In bringing together research on age effects in child language in one place, we hope to bring together research that has a theoretical focus with research that has an educational and clinical focus.  We hope to bring together research that focuses on different dimensions of language, and with different populations of children.  We hope this breadth will move the field forward on this topic by revealing important conclusions and new questions for future research.

How do you see the topic developing in the future?

Age effects in child language is typically a topic that crosses disciplinary borders, and is of interest to researchers in communication disorders, education, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and more. Because research is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, we believe that age effects in acquisition will be an important topic in future research simply because of its inherent multidisciplinary character.  Future research on this topic could involve more inter-twining of language development with the development of other perceptual, cognitive and motor skills.  Future research on this topic will also likely include mapping the neurodevelopmental with the behavioural development patterns, and more attention will be given to the interaction between genetic and environmental factors in development.  Finally, we hope that by bringing together research on different populations of children in this special issue, this might spur more cross-population approaches to this topic where children from different populations are compared directly.

Journal of Child Language celebrated its 40th volume in 2013, how do you perceive its reputation?

The Journal of Child Language seems to be widely regarded as the première journal in the field because it is an established journal and, importantly, represents the inherent multi-disciplinarity of the field.  As mentioned above, child language researchers come from a variety of disciplines and this diversity is reflected in the articles in JCL.

There are other journals that publish child language research, but they tend to be focused on child development more broadly, or bilingualism in both children and adults, or on populations of children and adults with developmental disorders, etc.  One thing we like about looking at issues of JCL is that all the articles are on language and on children. There is certainly breadth in every other aspect of the research represented, but the particular focus of the journal means that there is usually something of interest to us in every article.

You can read the full call for papers here

Acquisition of English grammatical morphology by internationally adopted children from China

JCL CoverBlog post written by Lara Pierce based on an article published in Journal of Child Language

Internationally adopted (IA) children face a unique language learning situation in that they are exposed to one language from birth, but this language is discontinued at the point of adoption in favour of the language spoken by their adoptive family. IA children share similarities in their language environment with monolingual first language (L1) learners in that they receive the majority of their input in only one language. They functionally lose any abilities they had in their birth language quickly (within the first year or less) and typically become monolingual speakers of their adoptive language. However, their language experience also shares similarities with child second language (L2) learners, as they experience both a delay in acquisition onset of their adoptive language (typically ranging from about 6 months to 2 years), as well as exposure to another language. IA children are thus interesting from a linguistic perspective in that they provide a unique natural experiment to address issues relating to early language delay, as well as early exposure to two languages. Much of the previous work examining IA children’s language acquisition comes from a clinical perspective, using standardized tests and general measures of language ability to show that the majority of IA children “catch-up” to their age-mates relatively quickly following adoption (although for some aspects they appear to show delays, even into the school years). The aim of the present study was instead to examine acquisition of specific linguistic elements in IA children’s language with the goal of comparing them to typical L1- and child L2-acquisition patterns. In this way it was possible to address some interesting theoretical questions about the early period of language acquisition.

Thus, we longitudinally examined the acquisition of grammatical morphology for IA children (adopted from China at 10-13 months of age) in a way that allowed them to be compared to the typical acquisition patterns of L1 and child-L2 learners. While both of these groups share some similarities in the way they acquire this morphology, they also display notable differences. Specifically, child-L2 learners: 1) acquire the morpheme “BE” early, along with non-tense rather than tense-marking morphemes, and 2) show elevated rates of commission errors (i.e., replacing one grammatical morpheme with another) as opposed to omission errors. We could thus examine the patterns observed in the IA children’s acquisition over time to determine whether their development mapped onto either pattern. Our data showed that, during 5 sessions ranging from 9 to 34 months post adoption, IA children acquired grammatical morphemes in a manner similar to L1-learners, and this was evident in both spontaneous and elicited speech. Specifically, they 1) acquired “BE” within the same timeframe and along the same trajectory as other tense-marking morphemes, which was slower and less accurate than non-tense marking morphemes, and 2) showed a high percentage of omission and a low percentage of commission errors, consistent with the pattern observed for L1-learners. Thus, despite early delay in exposure to French, they appeared to acquire their “second first language” in a manner similar to typical monolingual language learners.

Read the entire article ‘Acquisition of English grammatical morphology by internationally adopted children from China’ written by Lara J. Pierce, Fred Genesee and Johanne Paradis here

Language-specific noun bias: evidence from bilingual children

Mother and ToddlerPost written by Dr. Lei Xuan and Dr. Christine Dollaghan based on an article in Journal of Child Language

Our research addressed questions about the kinds of words that appear in the early vocabularies of bilingual children.  Evidence from some languages, including English, has shown that young children acquire words for people and things before words that label actions and attributes or words that have grammatical functions. However, the hypothesis of a universal preference for nouns (i.e., a “noun bias”) in early lexical development has been challenged by studies suggesting that children acquiring languages such as Korean and Mandarin Chinese may show a weaker preference for nouns.

We used a unique research design to examine the extent of noun bias in 50 bilingual toddlers who were simultaneously acquiring English and Mandarin, two strikingly different languages that are believed to fall near the extremes of the noun bias continuum.  By studying noun bias within each child’s English and Mandarin vocabularies we hoped to minimize the threat of confounding due to individual differences in cognitive and sociodemographic factors that could affect the noun preference.  By focusing on children whose parent-reported vocabularies in both English and Mandarin fell between 50 and 300 words we hoped to control for variations in noun bias at different vocabulary sizes.  By recruiting 50 children, we ensured that statistical power was adequate for our analyses. Our objective was to provide the clearest test to date of the hypothesis that the degree of noun bias differs in these two languages.  Specifically, we hypothesized that the mean percentage of nouns in English would exceed the mean percentage of nouns in Mandarin by at least 15%, a value selected based on a synthesis of evidence from monolingual children in five languages.

Our results showed a mean difference in the percentage of English and Mandarin nouns of 16%, providing evidence that the preference for nouns was greater in these children’s English than in their Mandarin vocabularies.  Although nouns predominated the total number of words and the 50 most frequently produced words in both languages, the most frequent 50 words in these children’s English vocabularies included substantially more nouns and substantially fewer verbs than did the most frequent words in their Mandarin vocabularies.

The findings converge with previous findings from monolingual children and suggest that not only universal cognitive and perceptual factors but also cross-linguistic variations in language input should be considered in understanding the composition of early vocabularies. The within-subject bilingual design is likely to be a fruitful approach to understanding the influences on children’s lexical development.

Access the full article without charge until January 31st 2014 here.