Tag Archives: language learning

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.)

A Song A Day

Work, Rest or Play?



MOIEN (i.e., Morning/Hello). How many other languages can you find on this poster?

We are in a primary school in Luxembourg. From the linguistic vantage, the education system in Luxembourg is very special. In fact, it’s unique in Europe: it’s the only one confronted, on the one hand, with the nationwide statutory practice of French-German bilingualism (or trilingualism, if one takes into account the daily use of Luxembourgish in the classroom alongside the official languages of instruction). On the other, schools in Luxembourg are characterized by a high rate of foreigners. How high? 40 % in general (49.1% and 44.4% for preschool and primary school respectively). That’s high. That’s not necessarily the problem.

The problem: the problem is not the high rate of foreigners in the classroom, but that many of these pupils do not speak any of the three national languages; Luxembourgish, French and German. If such pupils did not attend nursery school (Spillschoul), where the language of instruction is Luxembourgish, or have no opportunity to learn Luxembourgish at home, they are automatically disadvantaged for primary school.  Luxembourgish is, essentially, a German dialect with a sprinkling of French. The German word for school is Schule. In Luxembourgish, it’s Schoul. If you speak German, you’ll pick up Luxembourgish very quickly. If you don’t, it’s trickier. Knowledge of French is not really an advantage. At primary school, Maths is taught in German. A significant proportion of the Year One curriculum is thus dedicated to learning German, either as a subject in its own right or as the vehicle for another subject. Primary school children do not learn to read and write Luxembourgish, but German. French is introduced in the second semester of Year Two. The teaching of/in German is intensified from Year Three. From this point on, there is also a direct correlation between the children’s background and their academic success.

The effects: very few (19.2%) of the pupils considered foreigners or with a migration background make it to lycée classique, which is the branch of the Luxembourgish school system that will lead to university. I won’t go down the very slippery road that involves reflecting upon the distribution of responsibility for academic failure (part teacher’s fault? part learner’s fault? part the fault of the learner’s family background?) or asking why all those hours spent at school still do not suffice to secure the success of the vast majority of pupils. I’ll limit myself to the observation of a fact: limited language skills and lack of familiarity with institutional discourse will result in academic failure. Nothing to do with being bright or not:

…А сада смо дошли до следећег питања. Поставићу ти питања везана за ову слику. Као и на претходној слици и овде имамо неке предмете и људе који нешто раде. Погледај пажљиво слику коју ти показујем и пробај да одговориш на следећа питања: 1. Покажи ми неког ко пише. 2. Покажи ми неког ко чита. 3. Покажи ми нешто написано/неки рукопис. 4. Покажи ми реч на овој страници. 5. Покажи ми слово азбуке/абецеде.”

How does it feel to read something you don’t understand? I’ve just asked you to answer a few questions from the section of Ideas about Reading that figure in the Performance Indicators in Primary School (PIPS) test used in my thesis. Unless you are someone who reads Serbian Cyrillic you wouldn’t be able to answer those questions, even though they are very simple ones: “Show me someone who is writing and reading, show me a word or a letter on the picture that I am using.” Then I could continue with mathematics and ask you a simple question: “Овде има четири аутомобила. Ако узмем два, колико их остане?”

Still don’t know the answer? You are still not able to answer the question: “how many cars are left if there were four and I took two away?” I will have to give you 0 points and you will probably be identified as an underachiever. Better luck next time (Reljic, 2011).

Language opens doors. It affords membership to communities of practice. Doors may be opened in different ways. The summary of the linguistic situation in Luxembourg and a closer analysis of a single child is the subject of a doctoral thesis by Roberto Gomez (2011). I learned a lot by helping Roberto with this thesis. The brevity of the description I provide here (courtesy of Roberto) cannot do justice to the complexity of the situation, but it will give you an idea.

Foreigners, a contentious word. I know. Children with migration background. Children whose parents do not speak Luxembourgish at home. Is a child whose parents come from Portugal, or a child who speaks Luxembourgish even though his/her parents don’t, still a foreigner? The system would be inclined to say Yes. It is possible to apply for and be granted a Luxembourgish passport even if one doesn’t speak Luxembourgish fluently, or even speak it at home. Once in possession of this passport, is this person a foreigner? The system would say No.



We are at the end of a Year One German class. The children have been listening to a popular story, Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten (The Bremer Town Musicians). The class comprises 25 children. Given the statistic above, we can estimate how many ‘foreigners’ are in this class. Given the statistic above, we can estimate how many of these primary school children don’t speak German outside the classroom. Will the German taught at school suffice to secure these children’s later academic success?


But the children have been working hard, listening hard, and now, to wind down, they engage in a colouring activity.


Each child present in the video clip has a different nationality. Some speak Luxembourgish better than others. None of them speak German at home or outside of German classes. To reinforce the off-task, less official nature of the colouring activity at hand, the teacher puts a CD on. It’s not in Luxembourgish. It’s not in German. Watch this clip to the end. The kids deserve it:

A song a day; work, rest or play? A new community of practice is created by this activity. By singing along – and look how much they’re enjoying themselves – these children form a subgroup within the classroom. On off mode, they are livelier than before. They’re probably not thinking so much about German anymore, yet they are training language skills in other ways; in a more emotive, less abstract, less grammatically-directed manner. They’re learning although they’re not deliberately trying to. So are they working, resting or playing?

Tricky. Better not over-simplify.

In French, we call this reproduction of the phonetics of a language unfamiliar to the speaker yaourt: yoghurt. These kids will begin to learn French in Year Two. Bet they’ll know the lyrics of this song better by then, if not by heart, and other songs too!