Journey to the world of language

February 20, 2008

How does a child learn to speak? How is a tiny arm-waving package transformed in a few years into a seasoned conversationalist who knows how to change register and put itself in its friend’s shoes?

In the beginning is the cry: a keening, ear-splitting wail of alarm that sometimes develops into a rasping growl howl. The mother responds to the alarm, just as she is supposed to. Parents caring for their firstborn discover their inner Bruce Willis, rushing to the rescue, easier than anyone would ever have believed, because if the crying doesn’t stop, the world will come to an end. It takes years before the cry of a baby, any baby, stops catapulting them into alert mode.

Soon the cries are accompanied by other sounds. The baby looks at a potted plant, expressing its delight with an ‘eeeeee’ and ‘aaaaaah’. No matter that the plant doesn’t answer, interactive learning is for parents and siblings to take care of. The child emits long, effortless streams of babbling, savouring its new skill. The sounds start amalgamating into words, sentences, topics, abstract figures. But what occurs in the child’s speech in five years?

60 children and 20 researchers

Parents are not the only ones who are interested in the baby’s entry to the world of speech. The Department of Speech Sciences at the University of Helsinki is currently conducting an extensive research project on how children develop language and interaction skills.

“There have been surprisingly few recordings made of children’s speech in conversational situations. Furthermore, until now, there has been relatively little research on how sounds are learned or in which order consonants appear in speech,” says director of the project Minna Laakso, Docent in Logopaedics.

Laakso and her colleagues, Tuula Savinainen-Makkonen and Tuula Tykkyläinen, gathered a huge corpus of toddlers’ speech. The children played and talked, had meals with their parents and squabbled with their siblings while the researchers videoed their life.

“We have had sixty children and some twenty researchers participating, so it has been a really big project. It took a lot of time to gather the material. The parents took an admirably positive attitude towards this kind of co-operation, as people tend to do in Finland. Few parents have an opportunity to record everyday situations with their children. Now we were in a position to give them copies of the videos as a token of our gratitude for being allowed into their homes with our cameras.”

The longitudinal study followed five typically developing children from the age of ten months to five years. A total of 150 sessions were shot, varying from half an hour to one hour in duration. For cross-sectional material, the team videoed thirty children of 3, 4 and 5 years of age in various interactive situations. The shooting sessions, lasting for a week, yielded a total of 120 hours of video.

Children show what they want

At first a child shows what it wants, then it re-hearses words. Words become tools for conversation only gradually. “It takes time for speech to develop. Just as someone who is new to the world of work is not familiar with protocols until they have sat in on meetings for some time,” Laakso says.

The youngest children in the study were only 10 months old when the first videos were taped. “We also recorded mealtimes. The child points at things, drawing the parent’s attention to it. At first the video camera and the researcher behind it was the biggest source of wonder.”

The parents name the thing the child points at, and gradually the child learns to repeat the word. The child also learns words with its siblings, although the siblings do not necessarily have the same patience for repeating things as mom and dad.

“Our study shows that children have the capacity for reciprocal communication at a very early age. A child who is 12 months old is very active and participates eagerly in conversation. Smiling, pointing at things, testing words and the parents interpreting the child’s words, these elements constitute a more equal situation of interaction than has previously been thought,” Minna Laakso says.

At the age of one year, the child gets along for quite some time with just a few words. It takes six months on average to learn the first 50 words, following which the development speeds up and the child’s vocabulary starts to grow very rapidly.

“The actions of adults used to be emphasised as the input for the child’s speech. But the child is capable of speech activities at a considerably earlier stage than has been thought. Now we have systematic data on how the child’s activity contributes to the conversation situation.”

Children correct themselves

Gradually the words get longer, and the child learns to string words together. A two-year-old already knows how to construct sentences, and some are quite good at it. “It used to be accepted in the studies of child language that a child starts to correct its speech consciously at the age of about five years. Our material shows that children mould their own speech by themselves at a much earlier stage, between one and two years of age,” Laakso says.

Children strive for clear enunciation even before the age of two: the child interrupts its own speech and tries to pronounce the words more precisely or swaps one word for another without anyone telling it to do so.

“It would be interesting to study how the development of imagination affects the speech situation at ages three to four. The effect of temper tantrum behaviour on speech would also be interesting to analyse. Many of the children we videoed have since acquired a baby sister or brother, which is certain to have an effect on their speech,” Minna Laakso speculates.

At a very early age there are not necessarily any major gender differences in children’s speech, although gender is reflected in the parents’ attitudes. A girl is more readily offered a doll to play with, boys are offered cars or toy monsters. It is when they enter day care that children at the very latest perceive the gendered world of different games and objects. “It would be fascinating to record children’s conversations in day-care centres. After all, adults too are different at work than at home. Day-care centres could provide a wonderful parallel corpus.”

Speech scientists at the University of Helsinki have co-operated internationally with English and American researchers, among others. Marjorie H. Goodwin, an expert in conversation analysis, visited a speech science workshop in Helsinki last August.

Is there someone else here?

If small children participate in conversation even before they utter actual words, slightly older children are good at varying their speech. Girls are especially skilful in social situations.

“The verbal skills of five-year-old Finnish girls are extraordinarily well developed. The girls take into consideration the reactions of their playmates and use different modes of speech to persuade or to withdraw from a discussion they have started,” says Minna Laakso.

Boys often use direct action and non-verbal communication. “A typical formulation in girls’ speech is ‘yeah + question clitic that this one would be…’, discussing who does what when playing, something boys do not seem to use at all. Boys use the imperative mood much more often, but they do not always get their way,” Laakso says.

There are situations, however, where not even girls will use persuasion: younger siblings are ordered about using the imperative with no compunction. “Encounters between friends at play are more equal, the speakers change tone according to the situation,” Laakso confirms.

Five-year-olds couldn’t have cared less about the researcher listening to them behind her camera. They concentrated on their games. “When I stood behind the camera, the girls minded their own business. In the middle of play, one of them asked: Is there someone else here?”

 Source: University of Helsinki

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