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.