Children at a younger age learn languages at a much faster pace than teens or older people. The explanation for this learning advantage lies in the differences in the way that people speak to children and adults.
The results were published in an advance online publication of the journal of Psychological Science. For the first time, a team of researchers developed a method to experimentally evaluate how parents use what they know about their children’s language when they talk to them.
They found that parents have extremely precise models of their children’s language knowledge, and use these models to tune the language they use when speaking to them.
“We have known for years that parents talk to children differently than to other adults in a lot of ways, for example simplifying their speech, reduplicating words and stretching out vowel sounds,” said Daniel Yurovsky, assistant professor in psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
He added, “This stuff helps young kids get a toehold into language, but we didn’t know whether parents change the way they talk, giving children language input that is ‘just right’ for learning the next thing.”
Adults tend to speak to children more slowly and at a higher pitch. They also use more exaggerated enunciation, repetition and simplified language structure. Adults also pepper their communication with questions to gauge the child’s comprehension. As the child’s language fluency increases, the sentence structure and complexity used by adults increases.
Yurovsky likens this to the progression a student follows when learning math in school. “When you go to school, you start with algebra and then take plane geometry before moving onto calculus,” said Yurovsky. “People talk to kids using the same kind of structure without thinking about it. They are tracking how much their child knows about language and modifying how they speak so that for children understand them.”
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