Everyday language input and production in children across six continents

13 December 2023
Everyday language input and production in children across six continents
Why do some children learn language so much faster than others? Are girls faster than boys? And does learning two languages slow you down? A recent study of 1001 children living in very different places, from cities to subsistence-farming communities, provides some much needed answers.

Scientists from 13 universities including Harvard University in the USA, Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, found that the amount of talk children hear has a substantial influence on their own early expression of language. 

The study leverages new speech technology and big data to answer the question: Why do some children learn language so much more quickly and effortlessly than others? It analyses a unique cross-cultural dataset containing more than 2,500 day-long recordings of 1,001  two- to 48- month-old children living in 12 countries, and across urban, farmer-forager, and subsistence-farming communities. 

As expected, age and risk factors like dyslexia and global developmental delay predicted how much speech/speech-like vocalization children produced across all countries and languages. Critically, so too did the amount of talk that children heard, with children surrounded by less talk from adults producing significantly less speech.

However, unexpectedly and in stark contrast to previous work based on much more limited samples, parental education, gender and the number of languages the children spoke were not significantly associated with children’s productions over the first four years of life.

Professor Caroline Rowland, director of the Language Development Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and a Principal Investigator at the Baby and Child Research Center says: "This huge study suggests that it's not where you live, how many languages you speak, or the education of your parents that determines how quickly you learn to talk. What does matter is talking with children; for every 100 extra utterances they heard, the children in this study produced, on average, an extra 27 themselves. The take-home message to all parents is: ‘chat with your children’. And if you need inspiration about what to say or sign, the BBC's Tiny Happy People campaign can help."

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