Monday, December 26, 2016

Children's Eye-Movements Provide Insights into Language Development

A team of EU-funded researchers from Germany, Russia and the Netherlands is using eye-tracking technology to better understand the speech development of bilingual children, and to distinguish the natural mistakes they make in speech from those of children with genuine linguistic impairments.

The majority of Europeans (54 %) speak more than one language fluently, and this figure is set to rise further. With increased mobility and the opening of bilingual schools, many children are learning more than one language from birth. Yet the effects of bilingualism on children’s development are still widely misunderstood.

Children who grow up speaking two languages tend to develop their linguistic skills more slowly than monolinguals. The effects are particularly obvious in their weaker language – usually the language used at home. Parents and teachers often mistake this slow development for a speech impediment, and may send their children to speech therapy, or even give up on raising their children to be bilingual.

Credit: © drubig-foto -

It’s easy to see why parents make this mistake: EU-funded researchers in Utrecht, Berlin and St Petersburg have discovered that bilingual children in the early stages of speech development, and monolinguals born with a Specific Language Impairment (SLI), often make exactly the same mistakes when speaking.

The ‘Discourse Coherence in Bilingualism and SLI’ project looked at the language development of bilingual three to nine-year-olds living in Germany and the Netherlands. The children were native speakers of Russian, who had picked up German or Dutch either from birth, or from around age three when they entered pre-school. Researchers compared their linguistic performance with that of monolingual children growing up in Russia, some of whom had an SLI.

“We found that the bilingual kids were very strong in Dutch and German, because they used those languages at school and with their friends,” explains Elena Tribushinina, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s Department of Languages, Literature and Communication. “But they did have problems in Russian.”

Confusingly, the grammatical errors the bilinguals made when speaking were identical to those made by their monolingual, language-impaired counterparts in Russia, such as mixing up grammatical genders and conjunctions such as “and” and “but”.

Comprehension is key

Although the language‐impaired and bilingual children made the same errors, scientists were able to distinguish between them using two tests. The first involved using eye-tracking software. The children listened to sentences, and saw pictures of the characters mentioned in those sentences on-screen. Those without an SLI clearly understood grammatical differences such as gender, even if they couldn’t always reproduce them in speech. For example, their eyes would flick to a female character on-screen if the word ‘she’ was mentioned.

The second test involved listening to the bilinguals’ speech in both languages. They generally made more mistakes in their weaker language, and fewer in the other.

“But if you have a language impairment, you have it in both languages, always”, says Tribushinina.

The software available to the researchers has not yet been developed for home use. However, technology is developing fast. “We started out using huge eye-trackers mounted to the head. Now we have a laptop that records your eye movements.”

In the meantime, parents and speech therapists can use simple comprehension tests to judge whether their bilingual children have an SLI, or whether their speech is developing normally. Encouraging multilingualism

For children to become truly bilingual, they need to read and write in both languages. Tribushinina is therefore a strong advocate of fully bilingual schools, where some lessons are taught entirely in one language, some in another, and always by a native speaker. She also encourages parents to send their children to Saturday school in the weaker language. Tribushinina advises that immigrant parents address their children in their native language.

“Bilingualism is good for both languages; it’s good for cognitive skills; it’s good for learning a third or fourth language. Don’t tell a Turkish parent to speak Dutch to their children – or they’ll miss out on all the benefits of learning Turkish,” she offers as an example.

Contacts and sources:
EC Research and Innovation

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