Playing With Other Children Affects Toddlers’ Language Skills

According to a new study published in the Journal of
Experimental Child Psychology, any toddlers who have more exposure to other
children, such as those in daycare, may be particularly good at certain word
learning skills. Young language learners acquire their first language(s) from
the speech they are exposed to in their environment. For some children, like
those in daycare, this environmental speech includes a large quantity of speech
from other children, rather than from just adults and parents. Researchers at
the University of Waterloo examined the word processing skills of toddlers who
spend most of their time with adults, compared to those toddlers who have more
exposure to groups of children. The researchers were interested in how well the
toddlers understood the speech of other children.
Across two experiments, researchers assessed 21 to 23 month
olds processing of a child’s speech, and found that toddlers processed the
child speaker’s productions as well as those of an adult and with the same
level of sensitivity to phonetic detail previously shown for adult speakers.
This means that the toddlers understood the child speaker at roughly the same
ability as an adult speaker. Although all of the children were good at
processing child speech, the study found that toddlers who had more exposure to
other children were better at associating a new word to a new object, which is
a key process for language learning.
Very young children’s speech is characterized by a number of
differences from adults. These changes include (among others) substitutions of
one sound for another (e.g., fumb for thumb) and omissions of sounds (or
syllables) altogether (e.g., nake for snake) and can lead to low intelligibility.
The majority of these more significant deviations have decreased by 4 years of
age, and they are largely absent after 6 years. However, even once these larger
deviations are no longer present, children continue to show less accuracy and
more variability in their productions than adults. These deviations and
increased variability mean that child speech may be more difficult for young
language learners to process than adult speech.
Because toddlers who have more environmental experience
around other children were able to understand and identify new (or novel) words
with new (or novel) objects, it led researchers to a few conclusions. One
conclusion is that speaker variability introduced during the learning process
affects attention to phonetic detail and the generalizability of word
representations. Another possibility is that exposure to multiple speakers in
the environment has effects on vocabulary size (perhaps via the influence of
variability or as a result of having a wider variety of interactions in which
different topics or objects are discussed) and that this in turn affects novel
label processing.
Overall, these findings demonstrate that child speech may
represent useful input for young language learners.

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