November 19

Learning Language by Eavesdropping


Via WikiMedia Commons.

Though kids seem to learn language without effort, scientists continue to puzzle over how children go from scream-y, pre-linguistic squooshballs to slightly-less-scream-y toddlers who can string a few words together (including “no!”) to older children who speak more or less like adults do. Researchers have learned a lot about how kids learn to talk—they know that children are in tune with their environment, with caregivers [1-2]. More recently, research suggests that when mom and dad direct their attention (and verbal labels) towards what a child is already engaged with, children might to learn more quickly [3]–that is, when mom says “doggy” and a child is petting the dog, the word is probably more likely to stick than if only mom was looking at the dog.

The puzzle of language acquisition is still far from being “solved,” however. In the past, researchers on one extreme of the theoretical spectrum have noted that it seems incredible that children could learn new words without specialized, built-in machinery, especially since there is such little overt feedback [4]. That is, parents don’t necessarily correct children when they use grammar incorrectly, or mispronounce a word. However, some recent work seems to show that so-called “negative feedback”—telling a child when their language wasn’t up to snuff for grown-ups—plays a role in how children acquire a sound system, words, and eventually, grammar [5-6].

Though adults do not always explicitly correct children when they produce errors in their speech, they do sometimes reformulate children’s errors. For example, in the following exchange, Abe’s father implicitly corrects him [5, p. 656]:

Abe (age 2.5): The plant didn’t cried.
Father: The plant cried?
Abe: No.
Father: Oh. The plant didn’t cry.
Abe: Uh-huh.

Reformulation of an error (“The plant didn’t cried”) provides the child with a fairly direct comparison of the correct form, along with their error. Even if children do not always correct themselves after such reformulations, they may be aware that there are multiple forms, and perhaps even aware that they are using the incorrect form. Comprehension precedes production when it comes to language acquisition begins, and children may form strong internal representations errors which are hard to overcome. This, in turn, might inhibit children from producing a form they know to be correct (or at least already have in mind as an alternative form).

In addition to picking up on subtle cues like the above reformulations, children may also be sensitive to the conversations of those around them, including overhearing reformulations of their speech directed to other family members. In some cultures, it is not unusual for parents to direct very little speech to a young child. For example, sociological work in Western Samoa suggests that members of a family often speak to each other according to a hierarchy, with higher-ranking members not being expected to speak to much lower-ranking members [7]. In such a culture, an infant might petition her mother for help, and the mother might instruct an older child to help. Imagine you are a two-year-old with a mission: figure out how to use the word cat. You think it refers to any fuzzy, four-legged creature, but actually, it’s more specific than that. You try it out when asking your mom to go get your pet dog so that you can play. “Pet the cat?” Your mom turns to your sister and says, “Mary, can you go get the puppy?” In this way, children may hear reformulations of utterances containing errors directed to third parties. In addition, in the same culture it is habitual for parents to speak for the child (particularly when he or she has failed to appropriately communicate), perhaps offering an opportunity for the child to hear a correct reformulation of what he or she has just tried to communicate [8].

In addition to overhearing reformulations, young children may benefit from engaging in multi-participant conversations, especially if they have older siblings. In cultures where parents do not directly respond to young children who are beginning to acquire language, older children have been reported to speak directly to their younger siblings where adults do not [9]. And although other research suggests older siblings provide even less negative feedback than either mothers or fathers [10], young children were found to speak as often to their older siblings as to their mothers in three-person (mother-child-sibling) situations [11].

Later-born children have also been reported to receive qualitatively different (and perhaps less) input from primary caregivers compared to first-born children. In particular, younger children may receive less direct speech from parents when an older child is around [12]. When mothers engage in conversation in dyads with only one other child participant, they are more likely to use more complex language, including more “meta”-language talk (talk that is actually about language itself) and more referential language (using terms referring to people and objects in the world). In triads (for example, with two children), mothers use language that is more centered around the children’s activities and full of social exchanges [13]. These findings suggest that birth order may affect the environment of a language learner.

Given that later-born children have access not only to direct conversations with a primary caregiver but also to triadic conversations, this may provide children with a richer linguistic environment. In addition, later-borns have the opportunity to overhear conversations that occur between a caregiver and an older sibling. Some propose that children with older siblings may have more exposure to social aspects of communication [14]. For instance, they might have more opportunity to learn how turn-taking works and how to prompt other participants to speak. They also have the opportunity to intrude into the conversation of their parent and sibling. In fact, in triadic parent-child-sibling situations, one fifth of the younger child’s conversational turns were intrusions into an ongoing conversation between the parent and the older sibling. In addition, they found that children seem to learn to be better “intruders” as they get older, responding in ways that make them more likely to be responded to, including intervening with new information that is relevant to the topic of the current conversation. In this way, they become more effective at turning the conversation from talk about others to talk about themselves by using the appropriate kind of speech.

When “eavesdropping” on a conversation between a caregiver and sibling, children can learn new words just from listening. Overhearing may also provide certain advantages that aren’t available in dyadic conversations, particularly for learning referentially complex concepts like pronouns. Not surprisingly, second-born children have been shown to have better knowledge of pronouns than age-matched first-born children. At both 21 and 24 months of age, later-born children exhibited more advanced pronoun production than first-born children even though no difference was found in the general language development between the two groups [15].

Though acquiring language is a difficult problem, children solve it rapidly and without abundant amounts of explicit negative feedback. Hearing adults reformulate errors to other family members, learning to successfully intrude in conversations, and overhearing others’ conversations contribute to early language learning, even in the absence of negative feedback. So if you have younger siblings you always thought were kind of nosy–those interruptions may have served a purpose for their language development. (You can be the judge of whether it was worth it!)


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