Tag Archives: language acquisition

Research unlocks clues to language-based learning in children


According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), one in five individuals are impacted by language-based learning disabilities — one of the most common being dyslexia, which involves difficulty in reading or interpreting words, letters and other symbols. Now, a new study from the University of Missouri that focuses on typically learning children, has found a link between “working memory” and how children learn. Researchers feel this discovery may later help educators uncover new ways to teach children with learning disabilities.

“Working memory, or the retention of a small amount of information that is readily available, is an integral aspect to learning,” said Nelson Cowan, a professor psychological sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. “Our goal was to understand the structure of working memory and how it relates to language use and intelligence in children.”


Working memory is the small amount of information an individual holds in his or her mind at one time, Cowan says. For example, if an individual is listening to a story, he or she holds the beginning sentence or paragraph in his or her mind until the story continues to the point where the listener can make sense of it. Cowan believes that people with language disorders such as dyslexia may have a working memory deficit.

In the study, Cowan and his team used three different memory models to assess the relationship between working memory and learning in 168 typically developing second grade children. The children participated in an array of tests that challenged the visual-spatial, phonetic and auditory aspects of their working memory.

Results showed that an aspect of working memory referred to as the focus of attention was found to have a strong correlation with learning and intelligence. In his previous work, Cowan found that attention is a key component to working memory.

“Attention is vital to understanding phonetic sounds, reading words and solving mathematical problems,” Cowan said. “To help children with language learning disabilities, educators can reduce the amount of information that is given to a child at one time, allowing them to channel their attention onto one task instead of three or four.”

The study, “The Structure of Working Memory in Young Children and its Relation to Intelligence,” was published in the Journal of Memory and Language and was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIDCD #R01 DC010784). Shelley Gray, a professor of speech and hearing science in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University was first author on the study. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agency.

The study, “The Structure of Working Memory in Young Children and its Relation to Intelligence,” was published in the Journal of Memory and Language.


when the past is never far behind: how preschoolers’ expectations shape how they interpret speech


When we listen to people speak, we aren’t just hearing the sounds they’re making, we’re also actively trying to infer what they’re going to say. Someone might misspeak, forget a word, or be drowned out by background noise, and yet we often get their meaning anyway. This is because we use our past experience with language to hear what we expect them to say. Adults tend to manage this kind of “noisy channel” communication fairly easily, but new findings suggest 4- and 5-year-old children show the same adaptive ability.

The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Children process language in a way that combines both the auditory signal that they hear and their expectations about what they are likely to hear, given what they know about the speaker,” says psychological scientist Daniel Yurovsky of the University of Chicago. “They are sensitive to how reliable the information sources are, and they can combine them in a way that respects this sensitivity.”

The idea that we integrate two sources of information – incoming perceptual data and expectations based on past experience – when we communicate with each other emerges from developments in machine learning.

“This framework–called the noisy-channel model–grew out of some foundational work in information theory, and now makes a big contribution to things like autocorrect and text-to-speech applications,” explains Yurovsky.

Yurovsky and colleagues Sarah Case and Michael C. Frank of Stanford University wanted to find out whether this noisy-channel model might also describe the way that children process language.

The researchers recruited 43 children (between 4 and 6 years old) and 50 adults to complete the same task. The participants saw pairs of pictures: in each pair, one picture showed a plausible scene and the other showed an implausible scene. At the same time, they heard a distorted recording, in which a speaker introduced as “Katie” described one of the pictures. The participants had to select which picture in each pair Katie was most likely describing.

For some participants, Katie described the plausible scene (e.g. “my cat has three little kittens”); for others, Katie described a similar but implausible scene (e.g. “my cat has three little hammers”).

In the second round of the task, the description implied by the two pictures was phonologically very similar, differing only by a single consonant or vowel sound (e.g., “I had carrots and peas for dinner” versus “I had carrots and bees for dinner”). In this round, Katie always referred to the implausible scene (“bees”).

The results showed that the preschoolers were able to incorporate what they had already learned about Katie in the first round when interpreting her description in the second round. If Katie typically described the plausible scene in the first round, they were more likely to think that she said “carrots and peas.”

But if Katie previously tended to describe the implausible scene, they wouldn’t “correct” her description in favor of the more logical picture – they assumed that she was referring to the implausible picture, however nonsensical it was.

“These findings show that children are not confined to trying to learn from the sounds they hear, but can use their expectations to try clean up some of the ambiguity in perceptual information using their expectations,” Yurovsky says.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers varied the amount of noise in the room when Katie was talking. The noisy channel framework predicts that as speech becomes more difficult to hear–like on a poor cell phone connection–we should rely more on our expectations. And preschool-age children did exactly this: They adapted their responses to Katie’s ambiguous descriptions according to both their previous experience and the noise level in the room.

Overall, the fact that such expectations played such a strong role in the preschoolers’ decision making surprised the researchers:

“It’s pretty common in this kind of work to show that young children have some competence early, but usually if you compare them to adults you find that the effect is much larger in adults,” explains Yurovsky. “Not so here: At least by 5, and at least in this task, children adjust their expectations about what speakers are saying to the same degree as adults do.”

The researchers hope to conduct additional studies to investigate noisy-channel processing in younger children.

“We hope our ongoing research will help us to understand how children become an active part of the acquisition process–not just as perceivers of their input, but as contributors to it,” Yurovsky concludes.


(Originally posted PsyPost.)

Two Minds: native & foreign language practice at home and school

Selma and Katja 6

A German mum reading the Three Little Pigs to her daughter in French

Here’s a mum like many I have met during the course of my research. Her native language (German) is not the same as the language her daughter, Katja, is schooled in (French). Her daughter is having ‘problems’ according to more than one teacher. Maybe her mother should speak to her at home in the school language instead?

Selma and Katja 5

and he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down!


shot 10

playing school at home. Katja’s the teacher. The interaction is in French. (Katja):What’s that, a ‘choux’’? A ‘choux’, What is it? (Mum): Something you eat. (Katja): Correct. Next one. ‘Le cheval’…

Let’s find out more about this family’s language choices and obligations:

Mum: Well, Katja began learning both languages when she went to nursery school at the age of two and that’s why she makes… she doesn’t conjugate her verbs the right way. If I correct her, then she’ll repeat the corrected expression but she’ll say it the wrong way again the next time. ‘Have’ and ‘be’ are often different in German; they’re used differently. That’s the same mistake Alsatians make, by the way, and that’s how you know they’re Alsatians.  Or the two forms of ‘your’, they’re different in French as well and that’s how I can tell she’s translating from French into German because French is the language she’s at home in, actually. (…)Neither of my children are any good at translating. But if you speak to them in French, they naturally say everything in French. If I speak to them in German, they naturally speak in German. Whereby… Katja less so. She’ll often reply in French and, erm, I continue to speak to her in German anyway.

Me: You say that Katja first began to speak at nursery school. She was two years old at the time.

Mum: Well, no, it’s not true to say that she didn’t say anything at all, but it was more, well, like: mama, dada, papa, wow-wow, so it wasn’t, she wasn’t really making proper sentences. In fact she first started to say individual words, to describe things, or to say real sentences, three syllable sentences, first when she was two years old, that’s right.

Me: So what you’re saying is that school played a key role in her linguistic development?

Mum: Absolutely. For both children, I would say that school was the most important factor in helping them to speak properly. French, too, because I myself couldn’t speak French at the start. And, erm, well, yeah, so that they learn to speak properly. That happened at nursery school for the most part. Yes, I would say, the ground was laid at nursery school, yes.

 Me: We’re talking about French here, aren’t we?

 Mum: Yes, about French.

 Me: And about them speaking French properly…

 Mum: That’s right.

 Me: What about German? I mean, it’s their native language…

 Mum: Yes I know, but there are loads of words that the children don’t even know in German because they learned them within the school context. I dunno… So they’ll only know the word ‘cahier’ or at nursery school, too, I dunno, they’ll have done some work involving the colour ‘rouge’ and then they’ll simply use the French word.

Me: So you’re saying they’re storing the word in the language they ‘felt’ it in.

Mum: Precisely. Of course I read stories to the children or I speak to them but at school they deal with different themes to the ones dealt with at home and that’s how I even noticed what kind of vocabulary they were learning at school and that they were dealing with different themes to the ones at home because they were using these French words from school. So I then looked up these words myself and that’s how I began to learn French myself.


Some time later, half a year or so, I speak to the family again. They have moved to a different region in France, far away from bilingual Alsace, and Katja has just completed her first term in her new school. What’s the situation like for her now?

Mum: Well, when Katja joined her new class, we had the problem that her teacher got in touch straight away and told me that she thought Katja couldn’t speak French at all and that she’d need a speech therapist. I told her that that can’t be right cos Katja grew up bilingually and that in Alsace it’s quite normal to speak German and French. Katja was two when she went to nursery school and she learned both languages, French and German, at the same time, and I even know that she dreams in French, for example. She said, ok, but we’re not in Alsace anymore but in France, in a French school, and French is important, it’s the main language, and that I should speak French to Katja so that her French improves. Then I said to her that that wasn’t a good idea because I can’t speak French properly and Katja would only make the same mistakes as I do and that I didn’t want her to lose her German, which is also important, and that growing up bilingually is an advantage, a gift for life and not at all the same as simply speaking French and learning a second language at some later point.


language maintenance: spelling cards used by this family to train reading in German at home. (Mum): Katja doesn’t write at all at home. She likes to play school or other things but not writing.


shot 2

Katja and her mum planning a day trip, speaking German. (Mum): Look. Here it says: ‘for up to…’ how many adults? (Katja): Two. (Mum): There’s no two there. Which number is it? (Katja): Four! (Mum): Ah!

No matter which second language you learn, it has the same value, the same worth as French. She said okay, but Katja wouldn’t come to terms anywhere in France and we’re living in France after all and she’d just have to adjust. I said that might be, but I wasn’t in a position to help her, that it was her, the teacher’s, job to help her because Katja’s at school most of the time, from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, so in the two hours she spends at home she can speak German. The same goes for the weekends too. And she’s got homework as well, and all of that’s done in French. When Katja talks to herself or to others, then in French, so you can’t say that her main language is German. She said that Katja translates from German into French, and I said I didn’t think so because Katja makes loads of, the same grammatical mistakes in German. I don’t know about French, but her word order, well, sein, son, le and la, she gets it wrong in German too and she translates from French into German. So she said, well, then Katja has a problem with languages in general and that it wasn’t good for children to grow up bilingually because they never really learned either language properly and that we desperately needed a speech therapist because Katja hadn’t a clue at school, she didn’t know how to read, how to write and she couldn’t speak French properly either. All I said was that I needed her help because she was the one who is French and she’s Katja’s teacher, She’s the one teaching her all day long. I didn’t allow myself to get drawn into a debate about the fact that she had a problem with bilingualism, and it wouldn’t help Katja at all if I said her teacher was crappy and didn’t know how to motivate children. Fortunately, Katja is a confident child. She thinks her teacher’s just daft (…)

If you ask me, either they prepare the children well at school and then they manage, or you don’t and they don’t, but then it’s not the children’s fault.  My own opinion is that the teacher has a problem with German in general. I think it’s to do with the past, because the Germans were here during the war and occupied the area. Lots of horrible things went on at that time and I think Katja’s teacher has a problem with German that’s somehow linked to her family’s past. There are several children in Katja’s school who speak French and German, as I have now discovered, and where one parent is German, so Katja’s not a single case. But our problem’s that I’m a single parent; I don’t have a French husband, so that’s why it’s even harder for Katja to learn French, much harder than for the others. (…)

I think the real problem is the fact that the teacher can’t come to terms with the fact that you can be bilingual at home because the idea doesn’t fit into her little world, because she probably has problems herself with English and German, which she can’t speak at all. That’s the true nature of the problem. But whatever, Katja will just have to get through this year with that teacher. Next year she’ll have someone else. I won’t be able to solve the problem. I won’t be able to change the teacher. It’ll just be a rather long, hard year for Katja, but she’ll manage all the same, she’s got all the confidence a child needs.


I won’t offer you any conclusions. What are yours?