New Insights Into Early Childhood Language Learning

Summary: A new study explores how infants and toddlers acquire language. The research challenges preconceived notions about language development, particularly in low-income families, by analyzing daylong audio recordings of 1,001 children from diverse backgrounds.

Findings reveal early comprehension begins around 6-7 months, and significant improvements in language understanding occur around a child’s first birthday. The work aims to broaden the scope of language development research to include more diverse populations and to understand the mechanisms of language acquisition in children, including those who are deaf or blind.

Key Facts:

  1. Bergelson’s research refutes the assumption that socio-economic status significantly impacts a child’s language development.
  2. Early language comprehension in babies begins as young as 6 months, with a notable improvement around the first birthday.
  3. The study utilizes machine learning to analyze audio recordings from 1,001 children across 12 countries and 43 languages, providing a diverse and comprehensive dataset.

Source: Harvard

Growing up amid a swirl of Russian, Hebrew, and English fed Elika Bergelson’s passion for language development.

Her parents had emigrated in the 1970s from the Soviet Union to Israel, where they began their family. Bergelson and her youngest sibling were born in the 1980s after the family settled in Columbus, Ohio. Even back then, she noticed generational differences around grammar, accents, and vocabularies that left her asking how the kids had outpaced the adults.

“What is it about language acquisition that makes younger minds — which are usually less good at everything — actually better at this particular process?” she remembered wondering.

This shows a child and a book.
It’s as though children around age 1 go from just barely grasping the mechanics of language to suddenly becoming true communicative partners. Credit: Neuroscience News

Today, the newly appointed associate professor of psychology studies how infants and toddlers learn language from the world around them. The developmental psychologist specifically strives to parse the various theories that account for the onset and eventual mastery of language comprehension and production.

Bergelson’s latest paper, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, takes a global approach to developing and testing such theories, with the results refuting common critiques of low-income parents and caregivers. 

“Our results question some of the received wisdom, certainly in the American policy space, that families in certain socioeconomic circumstances are providing less or less ‘good’ language input to their kids,” she said. 

As a language scientist, Bergelson has a history of generating such myth-busting insights. Her first experiments on early word-learning, performed 15 years ago when she was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, revealed that comprehension begins at a far younger age than previously thought. “Around 6 or 7 months, babies are starting to understand some really common nouns,” she said. 

Scientists have long acknowledged the burst of word production that occurs around age 18 months, Bergelson explained. In follow-up studies, she and her colleagues found a similar qualitative improvement in language comprehension near a child’s first birthday, around the time the first bona fide words arrive. It’s as though children around age 1 go from just barely grasping the mechanics of language to suddenly becoming true communicative partners.

Could this be because parents talked more or differently to older babies? Bergelson investigated this theory as a postdoc and research professor at the University of Rochester, where she led the creation of a large naturalistic data set that tracked babies from 6 to 18 months old with audio and video recordings, eye tracking, and more.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s something fundamentally different in how parents or caretakers interact with 6- versus 12-month-olds,” she concluded. 

With a grant from the National Institute of Health, Bergelson’s new Harvard lab recently embarked on a project designed to test what she calls the “better learner models” of language acquisition. The comprehension tipping point is ascribed by these theories to the baby’s growing social, cognitive, or linguistic abilities, rather than just their accumulation of more input from caretakers. 

But what, exactly, are the skills that support word learning? Bergelson and her colleagues plan to test comprehension indicators that appear sooner than talking itself, such as pointing or looking in the direction of a mentioned object. This research holds the long-term potential of improving early interventions for children who struggle with language acquisition.

Bergelson has the additional goal of growing the pool of children whom language scientists study. “One really important shift in the field recently has been a much more serious reckoning with the fact that we tend to study white, middle-class Americans,” she said. 

Her recent PNAS paper, written with senior co-author Alejandrina Cristia at France’s École Normale Supérieure, PSL University, is based on a large sample of 2- to 48-month-olds. Daylong audio recordings captured the babbling and baby talk of 1,001 children representing 12 countries and 43 languages. Financial support for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others.

Analyzing the recordings was completed with the help of machine learning. Bergelson called it a “coarse-grained” approach to studying the topic. “It’s the algorithm’s estimate of how much speech the kid is hearing or producing,” she said. “But I think it’s a complementary approach to what otherwise is very, very time-consuming and sample-limiting work.”

The results show that the main predictors of language development globally are age, clinical factors such as prematurity or dyslexia, and how much speech children receive from the world around them. In contrast to previous research, no effects were found related to gender, multilingualism, or socioeconomic.

“There’s been much debate and discussion in the literature in recent years about how socioeconomic status does or doesn’t link to language input and language output,” noted Bergelson, who is immersed personally in early development baby babble, having given birth to her second child last year.

“We looked in many, many, many different ways … In no form did we ever find evidence that moms with more education had kids who produced more speech in these tens of thousands of hours of recordings from daily life.”

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Bergelson is also pursuing new research on language development in children who are deaf or blind. The case of blindness is especially interesting, she noted. 

“Blind adults’ language skills are largely indistinguishable from sighted folks’,” she said. “But a lot of our theories about early language learning rely on children seeing others to refer to things in the world. So there’s a mystery — how does that happen? And what does that tell us about how language develops for everybody?”

About this neurodevelopment and language learning research news

Author: Christy DeSmith
Source: Harvard
Contact: Christy DeSmith – Harvard
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Everyday language input and production in 1,001 children from six continents” by Elika Bergelson et al. PNAS


Everyday language input and production in 1,001 children from six continents

Language is a universal human ability, acquired readily by young children, who otherwise struggle with many basics of survival. And yet, language ability is variable across individuals. Naturalistic and experimental observations suggest that children’s linguistic skills vary with factors like socioeconomic status and children’s gender. But which factors really influence children’s day-to-day language use?

Here, we leverage speech technology in a big-data approach to report on a unique cross-cultural and diverse data set: >2,500 d-long, child-centered audio-recordings of 1,001 2- to 48-mo-olds from 12 countries spanning six continents across urban, farmer-forager, and subsistence-farming contexts. As expected, age and language-relevant clinical risks and diagnoses predicted how much speech (and speech-like vocalization) children produced.

Critically, so too did adult talk in children’s environments: Children who heard more talk from adults produced more speech. In contrast to previous conclusions based on more limited sampling methods and a different set of language proxies, socioeconomic status (operationalized as maternal education) was not significantly associated with children’s productions over the first 4 y of life, and neither were gender or multilingualism.

These findings from large-scale naturalistic data advance our understanding of which factors are robust predictors of variability in the speech behaviors of young learners in a wide range of everyday contexts.

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  1. Language comprehension, development, and use, begins from the moment of conception. It is called Life!! It begins at the cellular level, moves to the nervous system, ears, eyes, mouth, touch, brain, etc. etc.

    Science is common Sense!!

    little larry bird, spelled B-o-b 🐦🐦🐦

  2. This is fascinating research! I really appreciate the discovery that socioeconomic status (evidenced here by the educational attainment of mothers) does not play the role that we, including myself, have long-believed it has. This research has exciting implications for understanding and supporting language acquisition and development.

  3. As per old Indian documents, the ear of the embryo start working at the age of 2.5 months ( embryo age) and the brain starts learning adult talk around womb.

    So, keeping this in mind, more probing required.

  4. The article was incomplete in my estimation. It told of a lot of ‘that’ (young learners have learning advantage) but not ‘why’ as in blank slate, new book, new news or what, or ‘how’ as different or more varied neurons up with the task. I learned how many youngsters in the studies and who did the studies. :(

  5. “Children who heard more talk from adults produced more speech.” Kids of stay-at-home parents have an advantage. Also, dyslexia can be caused by the spelling system’s irregularities (surface dyslexia). English has the worst system. Btw, the French fixed 5000 words, but critically they did not force current users to learn the new spellings. The anglosphere needs to start to see the light.

  6. I agree with Prof. Bergelson that language development start at 6 to 8 months old. This stage is called babbling stage or baby talk.

    I would like to add however, that in response, it is also important for the adults or caregiver to baby talk to the baby, repeating what the baby had babbled, and also babble more different sounds. You would be surprised that many babies can mimick these sounds. This is called “motherese”. This is a very important stage in language development but somehow ditched for some reason.

    As days go buy, the adult can introduce words, mainly single syllable words or repeated syllables like mama, dada. baba etc. Then identifying objects.

    I am an early childhood teacher from New Zealand. I use motherese with young learners but sadly the mainstream early childhood sector frowned upon this method. It used to be encouraged long time ago.

  7. “Bergelson’s research refutes the assumption that socio-economic status significantly impacts a child’s language development….”

    I believe this was pretty well refuted by psycholinguists a couple decades ago.

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