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.

Reduced auxiliaries in early child language: Converging observational and experimental evidence from French

Post written by Dr. Cristina D. Dye based on an article in Journal of Linguistics 

Since the early studies in language acquisition, scholars have noted that certain grammatical elements, among which auxiliaries and verb inflections, often appear to be missing in early child speech, with the result that child utterances sometimes exhibit verb forms with non-finite morphology in seemingly matrix clauses. This observation has led to a deprivationalist conception of child syntax.

In contrast with previous studies, this article explores the possibility that the child’s PHONOLOGY may considerably impact her overt realization of auxiliaries. Specifically, it examines the hypothesis that non-finite verbs in early speech are in fact attempted periphrastics (i.e., auxiliary/modal + non-finite verb) in which the auxiliaries are just reduced phonetically, often to the point where they remain unpronounced.

This study involved 28 normally-developing French-speaking children aged between 23 and 37 months. New observational data revealed a continuum in a given child’s phonetic realizations of auxiliaries. Children showed various levels of auxiliary reduction, suggesting that their non-finite verbs are best analyzed as being part of periphrastics involving an auxiliary form that represents the endpoint on this continuum, i.e. is (completely) deleted. Further examination of these verb forms showed that their semantics corresponds to the semantics of adult periphrastics. Additionally, the results of an experiment where children imitated sentences with either periphrastic or synthetic verbs showed that responses with non-finite verb forms were predominantly produced when the target sentence involved a periphrastic, rather than a synthetic verb.

These findings open the door to investigation of other factors that might affect auxiliary reduction (e.g., memory, sentential complexity, fine-grained syntax problems), other populations (bilingual children, SLI), and other grammatical elements (e.g., determiners, complementizers). They also invite new research into the specific aspect(s) of phonology that might account for child reduced/deleted auxiliaries (e.g., phonological realization processes, phonological representations, prosodic representations, production/articulation difficulties).

Read the entire article from issue 47/2 of Journal of Linguistics here.

Email contact:  [email protected]

Links to some of the press received by this article:

Science Daily
Huffington Post
Futura Science 

Effect of foster care on language learning: Findings from the Bucharest Early Intervention program

Post written by Jennifer Windsor, University of Minnesota, USA based on an article from the latest issue of Journal of Child Language 

Many young children live in institutional and orphanage care across the world. Children’s language skills may be substantially affected if that care involves a very poor physical and social environment, although the adverse effects may be reduced when children move to a more enriched environment. One of the key questions has been how the age at which children are placed in a more nurturing environment after sub-optimal institutional care affects their short- and long-term language skills. The answer to this question has significant implications for understanding child development and also for framing early intervention services for young children.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project is a randomized controlled study of the effects of high-quality foster care on the development of children who have experienced sub-optimal institutional care. The researchers previously have shown that children placed in foster care by age 2 years have substantially stronger preschool language outcomes than both children placed after age 2 and children who remain in institutional care. On the other hand, children placed in foster care by 15 months have language skills equivalent to children living in the same community who have never received institutional care.

This study reports on school-age language outcomes for the children, when they were 8 years of age and now living in a range of different care environments. One hundred and five children took part in the study, 54 originally assigned to foster care and 51 originally assigned to continued institutional care. Even though current placements varied, the effects of early institutional care were marked. Children originally in foster care had longer sentences and stronger sentence repetition and written word identification than the children who remained in institutional care during their early lives. Children placed in foster care by age 2 had significant advantages in vocabulary and word identification. As when they were preschoolers; children placed by 15 months had equivalent language skills to other typically developing children in their community. The study shows the continuing adverse effects of early poor institutional care on later language development. It also highlights the key importance of early placement in an enriched environment for robust language skills.

Read the full article ‘Effect of foster care on language learning at eight years: Findings from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project’ from Journal of Child Language here

Discover more about the Bucharest Early Intervention Project here


Journal of Child Language Special Issue on Atypical Language Development

Based on the introduction to the JCL’s Special Issue on Atypical Language Development

Written by Letitia R. Naigles and Edith L. Bavin

The Journal of Child Language’s recent special issue on atypical language development includes 11 excellent papers on a range of disorders (Down syndrome (DS), Williams syndrome (WS), Fragile X syndrome (FXS), dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Specific Language Impairment (SLI), Pre/perinatal brain injury (BI)) manifested by children learning a range of languages (English, British Sign Language (BSL), Dutch, German, Hebrew, Kuwaiti Arabic).

To the extent that child language acquisition relies on the neural substrate of the brain, then children with specific kinds of atypical neural substrates should show atypical processes and/or products of language development. Investigations of atypical language development in children, can help reveal which underlying (nonlinguistic) components are required and what they are required for, which processes are resilient or robust, and the degree to which language representations break down in graded or absolute fashion within a given disorder.

Papers in this issue provide compelling evidence that grammar is impaired in both toddlers and school age children with DS or WS (both of whom display lower general cognitive functioning) compared with children with FXS or typical development (TD). Yet a phonological system is clearly available to children with DS even when their articulation is problematic.  In other papers, the extent to which social abilities contribute to acquisition is investigated with children with ASD, who show marked restrictions in social interaction, and WS, who are highly social. The research reported shows that removing social engagement from the toolkit of children with ASD impacts on their word learning; however, the presence of social engagement in children with WS does not guarantee intact language development, neither within the pragmatics realm nor with respect to the timing of grammatical development.

Some aspects of language development seem to proceed typically in children with disorders: In the lexical domain, the content and organization of vocabularies encompassing the first 50 words were strikingly similar for children with ASD’s and children with TD; and for children acquiring BSL (TD and those with SLI), semantic clustering effects were found.  In the grammatical realm, similarly to children with TD, children with BI produced gesture-speech combinations encompassing simple propositions several months before they produced those propositions entirely in speech; additionally, children with WS and DS learning Hebrew produced many grammatical elements in the same developmental order (i.e., synchronously) as children with TD, suggesting that these elements cohered as a system for these groups.  But not all early language development processes show resilience:  the research reported showed no evidence of learning non-adjacent dependencies in an artificial language for toddlers at familial risk for dyslexia and, hence, no evidence for sensitivity to regularities when processing such utterances. These findings suggest that language development that appears to be typical at specific points in time may be proceeding via different underlying routes/processes.

For a given disorder and/or across disorders systematic graded or partial impairments may be observed within a given area or subarea of language.  Evidence of rule use in German- or Arabic-speaking preschoolers with SLI is reported: Children inflected novel verb or noun stimuli appropriately and produced overgeneralizations at levels comparable to children with TD matched on language-level.  However, performance by children with SLI was consistently poorer. Such findings pose a theoretical challenge:  how can a given area of language appear to be rule-governed to some extent but not in total?

 Explore the entire Atypical Language Development special issue of Journal of Child Language without charge until the 31st March 2013