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

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