Children's way with words sparks research

August 28, 2006

For some scientists, research ideas can be found anywhere - even at home. Dr. Elena Nicoladis, a professor in the University of Alberta Department of Psychology, found her own children prompted fascinating language research questions.

"How can babies go from being such 'blobs' at birth to being so proficient in language that they can flatter, persuade, lie, make jokes and tell stories by the age of four? That's the question that gets me to work," Nicoladis said. "Language is the most noticeably human behaviour and we do exceptionally well at it."

Nicoladis conducts research in language acquisition, language switching in bilinguals, and gesture. She admits that her children, Nico and Zoe, have contributed great research ideas, some of which have ended up in scientific papers published in prestigious academic journals.

Nicoladis recalls that when her son Nico was two, he started saying 'my brush teeth' when he meant 'my tooth brush'. Nicoladis had been studying language acquisition for years, but had never heard or read anything about such an error before. The experts had no answers for her. Was her son weird? Was there a gap in the knowledge? Nicoladis' subsequent research showed that her son wasn't weird - he was just bilingual.

Indeed, Nico was learning French and English at the same time. The French structure for 'a tooth brush' is 'une brosse à dents' which, translated word for word, means 'a brush for teeth'. Nicoladis' findings suggest that, in the process of acquiring two languages, bilingual children sometimes transfer structures from one language to another, but this is only a transitional stage. Unsurprisingly, Nico soon began asking for a new tooth brush.

Zoe, Nicoladis' s daughter, made her own contribution to her mother' s academic success. At age five, Zoe caught herself saying "the blanket white" and laughed heartedly. Nicoladis made a suggestion: "Maybe we should speak like this all the time: a fridge white, a cup blue, a dress red..." Zoe stopped to think, then said: "If we said that, we would not be speaking English." Nicoladis was intrigued by Zoe' s answer and, with the help of research funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, she began investigating how children learn word order in structures that contain adjectives and nouns, such as 'white blanket'.

In English, adjectives are used before nouns, but in French, adjectives follow nouns. Nicoladis found that children between the ages of two and four use these structures correctly, especially if they contain familiar words. And her research showed that children who speak only English are not willing to change word order and say 'blanket white', for example, not even as part of a game.

However, if the game contains non-existent adjectives, such as 'graffish', children are more willing to change the word order and say things like 'horse graffish' (for a horse with three legs). Nicoladis also found that children who speak both English and French, like Zoe, are more willing to say 'blanket white'. This is not because they speak English less well than monolingual children do, but because this order is the norm in French. Bilingual children know that the word order does not change meaning in these structures.

Nicoladis is a strong advocate of bilingualism. "There is nothing but advantages to bilingualism" she says. "The greatest advantage is that bilinguals can speak with more people."

Source: University of Alberta, By Anamaria Popescu

Explore further: Kids show cultural gender bias

Related Stories

Kids show cultural gender bias

February 9, 2012

( -- Talk about gender confusion! A recent study by University of Alberta researchers Elena Nicoladis and Cassandra Foursha-Stevenson in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology into whether speaking French influenced ...

Lower lexical recall in bilingual kids no cause for alarm

September 16, 2009

If your French Immersion student is scratching their tête over not being able to think of the English word for sifflet or the French word for keyboard, a University of Alberta researcher has a sage piece of advice. Relax, ...

Research indicates toddlers can become ageists by three

August 19, 2009

( -- Sometimes inspiration comes from the strangest of places. For Sheree Kwong See, it happened during a testing session with a subject while conducting a study on language and cognitive changes in the elderly. ...

Recommended for you

Biologists trace how human innovation impacts tool evolution

November 24, 2015

Many animals exhibit learned behaviors, but humans are unique in their capacity to build on existing knowledge to make new innovations. Understanding the patterns of how new generations of tools emerged in prehistoric societies, ...

How experienced buyers can mitigate economic bubbles

November 19, 2015

(—Over the last decade, many people got a tough primer on the effects of economic bubbles, as the bursting of the 2007-2008 housing bubble sent shockwaves through most of the major world economies. But property ...

First Londoners were multi-ethnic mix: museum

November 23, 2015

A DNA analysis of four ancient Roman skeletons found in London shows the first inhabitants of the city were a multi-ethnic mix similar to contemporary Londoners, the Museum of London said on Monday.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.