Learning the Language

By Kim Eaton
Photos by Matthew Wood

Scofield has studied children's language and cognitive development for more than 10 years at UA.
Scofield has studied children’s language and cognitive development for more than 10 years at UA.

Language is universal — wherever there are humans, there is language. Not only do we depend heavily on language for conversation, we use it for archiving those conversations through books, texts and emails. For something so pervasive in human life, it only makes sense that we should try to understand it.

That is exactly what Dr. Jason Scofield is doing.

“Just because all humans have language does not mean that all language is acquired in the same way,” says Scofield, who studies child language development at The University of Alabama. Nouns, for instance, are typically learned earlier than adjectives.

“A significant percentage of people experience some kind of language-based deficit or delay, which has a dramatic and profound impact on the way those individuals interact with, and in, the world,” says Scofield. “Understanding how language is typically experienced for most people – starting critically in the early childhood years – helps inform us about those who experience atypical language problems.”

When Scofield arrived at UA in 2003, he began developing and building the AlaBama Cognitive Development Lab. Over the past 10 years, the lab has served as a research home for students across multiple disciplines. With about 30 projects and more than a dozen published papers focused on children’s language and cognitive development, the ABCD Lab, which it is commonly called, seeks answers about the nature of children’s language development.

SOMETHING SPECIAL

Understanding typical language development can help researchers better assist those with language delays.
Understanding typical language development can help researchers better assist those with language delays.

One of Scofield’s first projects researched children’s ability to learn new words. Researchers around the world have debated whether normal learning mechanisms support children’sword-learning or whether there might be something “special” about how children acquire words.

By comparing children’s acquisition of words to their acquisition of other information, like facts, Scofield demonstrated that children learn, and subsequently use, words differently than other types of information, suggesting there might indeed be something “special” about word learning.

For several years, Scofield and his students also studied how well children learned words when the source of the word was manipulated. Sometimes words were presented by a computer, a random voice or an inattentive adult. These studies generally focused on how the absence of either a speaker or the speaker’s attention might impact children’s subsequent learning of words. They discovered children’s learning didn’t change much. If the child looked at an object and heard the word, it was a good indicator they would map the word to that object.

The ABCD lab has served as a valuable experience for many UA students, both undergraduates and graduates. Students get involved at different levels and come from a variety of disciplines. Most are given the opportunity to help write the final scholarly papers and receive credit. Many go on to work with children in some capacity — as pediatricians, directors of preschools and child care facilities or child care advocacy groups, or operators of research labs, as examples.

“For some students, they just like to interact with the children,” Scofield says. “But even these students receive a greater benefit in that they see, up close, the scientific process. Watching how that process unfolds is incredibly helpful because it gives more credibility to the things they learn.

“That’s not just true in the study of children or language, but also in every lab and classroom across campus. Students understand that what they are learning isn’t just a faculty member’s guesswork or intuition; it is, instead, little bits of knowledge collected over long periods of time and confirmed through use of a very rigorous process.

“Any laboratory experiment or classroom lecture is ultimately built from those little bits of science strung together to tell a story about how that part of the world works.”

FORMING THEIR OWN OPINIONS

Scofield's research has demonstrated that children learn words differently than other types of information.
Scofield’s research has demonstrated that children learn words differently than other types of information.

One former lab student, 23-year-old Sarah Tharani, had the opportunity to not only interact with children – a vital component of her plans to pursue a medical degree in pediatrics – but also experienced the research process, including data analysis, up close. She was involved in several phases of a study that looked at children’s reliance on others when forming opinions.

When children learn new things about their world, either new words or basic information, they typically rely on others for that information. However, on the “opinion” project, the focus was not on how children learn factual information about the world, like an object’s name, but how they formed opinions about the world (like whether one flower was prettier than another).

Scofield and Tharani, along with students Alex Clausen and Erica Mathis, reasoned that children’s reliance on others might be highest when learning something factual about the world but might decline as the importance of being right declined.

In one experiment, children were asked to endorse the opinion of one of two speakers. One speaker had a history of providing accurate statements about an object while the other stated the opposite. The children were split 50/50 in their responses. Results indicated that a history of being accurate had no bearing on the opinion children endorsed.

“This shows that no matter what the truthful person said, the children would still end up forming their own opinion,” Tharani says.

The results made sense to Tharani because opinions don’t have to be accurate. To confirm this explanation, a second experiment again asked children to endorse the opinion of one of two people. However, in this study, one person had a history of providing commonly held opinions while the other had a history of providing unusual opinions. The results: Children still seemed to form their own opinion rather than tagging along with someone they thought held a common opinion, Tharani says.

“Findings like these show that children have very refined intuitions about acquiring information from their world,” Scofield says.

LEARNING THROUGH TOUCH

Another study, and a favorite of Scofield’s, looks at how well children can learn words for objects when they don’t actually see the object but only touch it. Up until a few years ago when this paper was published, Scofield said almost every study on children learning words was constructed the same way: show children an object, introduce them to the new word about the object and then ask questions about that object.

UA students who work with Scofield in the ABCD Lab come from a variety of disciplines and see the scientific process up close.
UA students who work with Scofield in the ABCD Lab come from a variety of disciplines and see the scientific process up close.

The children always experienced the object visually first. But, Scofield believed that despite the traditional dependence of sight in these studies, seeing the object first was not actually a critical component to children’s learning.

So, Scofield and a department colleague, Dr. Maria Hernandez-Reif, designed a study where children first experienced new objects tactilely.

Using a specially-designed box-like apparatus, children put their arms into armholes where they were handed an object they had never seen before. Then, with children only feeling the object, an experimenter provided a name of the object. Later, children were shown an array of objects and asked which one was like the object they felt in the box.

“Children as young as 3-years-old chose correctly more than 75 percent of the time,” Scofield says. “Not being able to see the object during learning didn’t appear to impact their likelihood of learning at all.”

The importance of language studies like these not only comes from the research garnered, but there is also a practical purpose that any parent can use. There are common language milestones for most children, Scofield says, and research helps document those. If parents understand how language normally unfolds, they know when certain milestones should appear and when there is cause for concern.

Children typically produce their first words around their first birthday, maybe a little before or a little after, Scofield says. If an 8-month-old has not said their first word yet, then that is probably not an issue, but if an 18-month-old still hasn’t said their first word, then that is something to which parents might need to pay attention.

“Some of these milestones can be informative for anyone who has a young child because they can help benchmark where a child ought to be – given what is typical of children their age,” he says. “Parents don’t usually aspire to have ‘typical’ children, but, in terms of language development, that is exactly what parents should be looking for.”

Dr. Scofield is an associate professor of human development and family studies in UA’s College of Human Environmental Sciences.

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.