picture of young girl in hospital bed reaching for a bowl in the hands of a doctoral student
Charlize Rodriguez follows the instructions of doctoral student assistant Stephanie De Anda in a San Diego State University language research lab. SDSU is among several universities involved in a study to track children’s language development. photo by JOHN GASTALDO • U-T

Researchers at San Diego State University and other sites will spend five years and $2.2 million (National Institutes of Health) in their quest to answer a pair of key questions: How much language do babies understand before they can speak? And does that early understanding accurately predict their readiness for school years later?

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How much language do babies understand?

SDSU, UCSD and other universities in $2.2 million study

Written by Karen Kucher

The study, funded by a division of the National Institutes of Health, tracks the language development of 250 children in research labs at SDSU, University of California San Diego, Concordia University in Montreal and the University of Geneva in Switzerland. A university in Mexico City also is contributing limited research.

Testing sessions began in January, and the study’s coordinators plan to continue enrolling participants for several more weeks.

Scientists have known that the first few years of a child’s life are pivotal to their long-term development. This study builds on that foundation; it seeks to not only track children’s word production but also measure their earliest language comprehension by asking toddlers to identify pictures of objects and actions on a touch-screen computer.

By following youngsters from when they’re about 16 months old until they reach 4½, researchers hope to learn how the early comprehension is related to development of skills needed for school. They are studying monolingual and bilingual children in families that speak English, Spanish, French or a mix of those languages to see if the results are universal.

“What we are trying to get at is children’s core concepts, core things they are really trying to understand about the world,” said Margaret Friend, a San Diego State developmental psychologist who directs the school’s infant and child development lab. She is the lead researcher on this project.

Researchers said the study ultimately could help identify language delays earlier in childhood so intervention can be started before students are struggling in classrooms. They envision pediatricians, reading specialists and others someday using portable touch screens to measure a child’s language comprehension.

The study also could provide tools that help educators better determine the needs of bilingual students with limited English-speaking skills, said Gedeon Deak, a UC San Diego professor of cognitive science and human development who is heading that site’s research.

Scientists will let participating parents know how their children are performing on the study’s tests compared with peers, and will give them names of speech and language clinics if follow-up assistance is desired.

The study’s testing sessions are designed to be fun.

SDSU’s lab boasts a waiting area filled with toys, books and crayons that on a recent visit kept 17-month-old Charlize Rodriguez entertained as her father, Henry, answered questions about their family and the words Charlize already knew.

At test time, Charlize sat on her father’s lap in a darkened room. He wore headphones and dark glasses to ensure he wouldn’t influence her answers as images flashed on the screen. Doctoral student assistant Stephanie De Anda took Charlize through 41 word pairs, asking in a friendly voice: “Where’s the sock? Touch the sock” and “Who is smiling? Touch smiling.”

Sometimes there was no response. At other times, the toddler reached out her hand to tap a picture. Whenever she got a word correct, a computer voice repeated the word and emitted a special noise — and De Anda gave Charlize a high-five.

In a second exercise, researchers show children unfamiliar household objects with made-up names. On this day, De Anda showed Charlize a paper clip that she called “a coba.” Then she asked the girl to put the “coba” and other objects into a bucket. The goal was to see how quickly Charlize could learn the new word.

“We will have a massive amount of data on Charlize by time she’s 4½, and we will look back at her school readiness scores and say, ‘What really gave us the best information about how ready she was for school at 4½?’ ” Friend said.

“Was it her ability to learn new words, which is what we tested today? Was it the overall mass of vocabulary that her parents said she had, or was it that more robust vocabulary that she showed us on the task? Or can we not even predict from what she did today?”

A few weeks earlier, Beatriz Ibarra of El Cajon brought in her 16-month-old son, Sebastian, for a testing session.

“I want to know how he’s doing,” she said. “I think that he’s where he is supposed to be, but I want someone to reassure me that he’s doing good.”

Comprehension can be hard to measure in very young children because although they might understand a concept like “ball” or “running,” they may not be able to express it. The path to literacy and language study utilizes touch-sensitive screens, first developed at SDSU more than a decade ago, that allow toddlers still too young to say more than a smattering of words to indicate their vocabulary comprehension.

The tool gives researchers a window into kids younger than 30 months. Other early childhood language comprehension will track preferential looking — basically how long children’s eyes linger on pictures in a book — to determine whether they know a particular word.

Measuring language comprehension is key to the study.

“When we look at children who are delaying in producing words only, most of them get better. It could be shyness that is driving them to not produce as many words,” Friend said. “But children who are delayed both in comprehension and in production, those children tend to stay delayed and yet we almost never measure comprehension for this purpose.”