baby pointing to an image on a computer

Baby Talk Research measures early language comprehension

By Gina Jacobs

Ever wonder how much a baby really understands before they start speaking themselves? And if a toddler’s ability to understand language can foretell their success in the classroom later?

These are the questions being asked by San Diego State University researchers as part of a new $2.2 million research project from the National Institutes of Health.

Professor Margaret Friend, a developmental psychologist in SDSU’s Department of Psychology and director of the SDSU Infant and Child Development Lab, is leading the five-year international multi-site grant that will examine whether early language comprehension leads to literacy and school-readiness.

“Research into this area typically focuses on what children say as a measure of their language acquisition, but our research focuses on comprehension which allows us to tap into words and concepts that children know even before they can say them,” said Friend, who is collaborating with researchers at UCSD, Concordia University in Montreal, Canada and the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

Comprehension leads to school readiness

Friend said preliminary research has indicated that babies who performed well on comprehension tasks in their second year of life (16-20 months) did better on language tasks (for example, spontaneous language use, the number of different words that they knew, and their ability to tell a story) in their fourth year of life.

“We want to see if the relationship between early comprehension and school readiness holds across languages.”

To measure language comprehension, babies participating in the study will hear words and will be asked to touch images on a touch-screen monitor that match the words. For example, researchers will show the baby a ball and a bottle and ask her to touch one of the images (“Where’s the ball? Touch ball!”).

Electronic grocery store self check-outs, iPads, and smart phones all make use of some form of touch technology.  The touch-screen used in this task differs slightly from these applications, providing exactly the technology needed for the research.

“The touch-screen technology is a novel approach to testing comprehension,” Friend said. “The pictures are really dynamic, the devices make fun sounds reinforcing the task and it keeps the babies interested longer so we can get a better measure of their comprehension.”

The longitudinal study will follow 250 16- to 20-month-olds for five years and compare their comprehension to their performance in the fourth year of life in order to see if early comprehension predicts school-readiness.

The research in the language acquisition of babies is one of many ways SDSU faculty are leading innovation and discovery, a key initiative of The Campaign for SDSU. With a unique focus on the teacher-scholar model, SDSU attracts researchers interested in solving the world’s most pressing problems, while showing students how to provide future solutions. Learn more about how SDSU leads innovation and discovery, and how you can help.

Bilingual children

Not only will researchers look at children from English-only speaking homes, but will also assess children in both Spanish and French monolingual homes, as well as Spanish-English and French-English bilingual homes.

“No other long-term study of the relation between early comprehension and school-readiness has looked at children from bilingual homes,” said Friend. “We want to see if the relationship between early comprehension and school readiness holds across languages.”

Ultimately, researchers hope their findings will help identify language delays earlier in childhood in order to intervene before they cause problems in the classroom.

“Children with language delays are often frustrated students because they don’t have the same skills to express themselves,” Friend said. “Because of this, these students are often at risk for not just academic but social and emotional problems in the classroom.  And it can affect them even further down the road when they are in the workplace.”

If you are interested in participating in the study contact Anya Mancillas at 619-594-0498 or fill out the online recruitment form.