It has long been known that children at much faster at learning new languages than adults, but there haven’t been concrete reasoning behind it.
Now a team of researchers have developed a method to experimentally evaluate how parents use what they know about their children’s language when they talk to them. They found that parents have extremely precise models of their children’s language knowledge, and use these models to tune the language they use when speaking to them. The results are available in an advance online publication of the journal of Psychological Science.
Adults tend to speak to children more slowly and at a higher pitch. They also use more exaggerated enunciation, repetition and simplified language structure. Adults also pepper their communication with questions to gauge the child’s comprehension. As the child’s language fluency increases, the sentence structure and complexity used by adults increases. Researchers liken this to the progression a student follows when learning math in school.
Researchers sought to understand exactly how caregivers tune their interactions to match their child’s speech development. The team developed a game where parents helped their children to pick a specific animal from a set of three, a game that toddlers (aged 15 to 23 months) and their parents play routinely in their daily lives. Half of the animals in the matching game were animals that children typically learn before age 2 (e.g. cat, cow), and the other half were animals that are typically learned later (e.g. peacock, leopard).
The researchers asked 41 child-adult pairs to play the game in a naturalistic setting in the laboratory. They measured the differences in how parents talked about animals they thought their children knew as compared to those they thought their children did not know.
The researchers found that the caregiver used a variety of techniques to convey the ‘unknown’ animal to the child. The most common approach was to use additional descriptors familiar to the child.
The study consisted of 36 experimental trials where each animal appeared as a target at least twice in the game. The participants represented a racial composition similar to the United States (56% white, 27% Black and 8% Hispanic).
The results reflect a western parenting perspective as well as caregivers with a higher educational background than is representative in the country. The researchers did not independently measure the children’s knowledge of each animal. The results of this study cannot differentiate whether the children learned any new animals while playing the game.