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Documenting language acquisition begins by recording what children are saying. This is often easier said than done. There are a number of factors to keep in mind when undertaking such an adventure.
Finding families with children who are willing to be recorded is always a difficult task. It is essential to involve someone from the community who can help locate children and explain the nature of the project to the children’s families. Many speakers of minority languages are embarrassed to admit that they speak the language and that their children speak the language. They may have experienced racist acts in the past because they spoke an indigenous language. Many have experience with teachers who insisted that they give up their language in school. It is typically a delicate matter to convince families that the study of their children’s speech is worthwhile, or at least will not bring potential harm. These negotiations are always more successful if a member of the family’s language community can explain what the project involves and vouch for the good intentions of the other investigators.
Some families may not be aware that their two-year-old children are already speaking their language. What parents consider true speech differs across cultures. Some cultures may even prohibit speech between outsiders and children. Finally, there is the simple matter of the time that the periodic visits with outsiders will take from the family’s other responsibilities. This may be time that they have for washing cloths, cooking meals, or tending to crops or livestock. The first recording with a family demands a lot of patience on the part of both the family and the investigator before they will know if the planned interaction will work out. To take one example, I once agreed to let a graduate student into my home to record my son’s language. The graduate student brought a carefully designed language elicitation game to make the most of his visit. What he hadn’t counted on was my son’s resistance to playing language games. After the first few turns, he hit on responding with “lemon” for the rest of the game. After the student left our house, my son turned to us and said that he had really lemoned him.
I consider it important to think about ways to compensate families and children for their participation in the project. We are, after all, expecting them to adjust their schedules and donate their time. The type of compensation should be adjusted to cultural norms. It can be a small cash payment or food. The investigator can offer to transport a family member if that will help.
Getting Children to Talk
Despite all of the careful preparation that you put into recording children’s speech, things will go wrong. Again patience is a virtue. It may take 3 or 4 hours to get to the children’s homes only to discover that the family has gone off somewhere. Someone in the family may be sick that day so you will have to return another day. And two-year-olds can stage some spectacular breakdowns for no particular reason. When a toddler has a bad reaction it is best to beat a hasty retreat and wait for them to calm down. When this happened to me at one point, the mother told an older son to take her daughter out in back of the house. I gave him my recorder as he left the house and he made a great recording of his sister while she played with him.
Jon Miller (1981) offers advice on how to approach children in a recording session. He suggests letting the children take the lead in approaching the investigator rather than trying to start a conversation with the children as soon as you enter the house. In all cases you should observe the cultural expectations for talking to children. In many cultures, adults come to the home to talk to other adults. The children may be expected to sit quietly while the adults talk. It is also important to observe how the family interacts with the children without any interference from outsiders. They have developed their own routines for controlling their children and talking with them. We noticed that Mayan children were used to responding to adults when they were asked if their mother or father was home. That is a topic that most two-year-olds can discuss at length.
Many parents become competitive once they understand that the goal of the project is to record their children’s speech. They might resort to eliciting speech from the children by asking them the names of various items in the room. These sessions offer good data on the children’s lexical phonology but do not contribute much useful information about their grammar. You should come prepared to interrupt such naming sessions after 10 minutes or so by interjecting questions that will lead to more productive interactions. One possibility is to ask the child who bought their cloths and where they bought them, etc. Food is another productive topic, especially if you can ask what they like to eat, who makes it and how do they make it.
It takes some time to decide if a child is a good talker. Roger Brown (1973) chose three American children for his study partly on the basis of how much they talked. There can be dramatic differences between children in how much they like to talk. The investigator must be prepared to stop recording children who remain silent for most of the session. It can be hard to judge how much a child has talked during a session. Many children produce intermittent bursts of speech followed by longer periods of silent play. For this reason, it is important to keep recording during the silent periods in order to record all of the utterances that a child produces.
The investigator can ask the assistants how they can get children to talk about daily activities rather than objects. Ideally, the family will be engaged in some activity when the assistants arrive for a recording session. The family activity serves as a good pretext to ask the children to tell them what the family is doing and describe how it is being done. In agricultural communities, families may be engaged in preparing material for planting or harvesting. Children are also interested in discussing what they eat and what the assistants eat. These conversations can be turned to questions about preparing meals and cooking. Children can also be asked about what their parents do.
The assistants should understand when to encourage the children to talk and when to step back and let the conversation develop spontaneously. Everyone is a little nervous the first time that the team arrives at a child’s home. The family wants their children to behave properly for the guests, and the investigators want the family to feel comfortable with strangers in their home. The investigator should let the assistants know that the goal of the first visit is to make the family feel relaxed in their presence.
The investigator will need to give the assistants some tools for eliciting interactions with children. The assistants may have good ideas about how to play with children, but any suggestions the investigator makes can build confidence in the assistants about their participation in the project. The goal in every recording session is to induce the children to interact spontaneously with other family members. The assistants and the children’s parents may have some ideas about when the children are the most talkative. It is natural for many parents to elicit speech from their children by asking them to name objects in a picture book or in the home. These naming episodes many be a good way to start children talking, but they produce limited information about the children’s grammar. Children also quickly become bored with naming familiar objects so the assistants should be prepared to change the conversation to more open-ended topics.
Two- and three-year-old children do not sit still for long so the field team should be prepared to chase children through cornfields, up trees and around the house. Following children in their natural habitat allows the investigators to ask children to share their ideas about the plants and animals they come across. These contexts offer many opportunities to elicit verbs for walking, crawling, flying, slithering, falling, etc. The need to follow children in and out of their houses requires recording equipment that is highly portable. The best solution is to have the child wear a microphone while they are being recorded, but if that is not practical then the team can use a portable recorder such as a cellphone. The team can encourage children to talk on their cellphone to a grandparent and tell them what they are doing.
The Recording Location
In working with families with young children it is essential to remain as flexible as possible - the recording location being a prime example. You will need to find a location that is comfortable for both the children and their family. Many parents are embarrassed by the state of their home and don’t want to invite outsiders into their home. Recording children outside the house allows the investigator to take advantage of the outdoors such as bugs, butterflies, animals and people that pass by. Recording indoors is often more restrictive in that the children have probably handled all of the things inside the house a hundred times and aren’t interested in them anymore.
Whether recording indoors or outdoors, it is vitally important to listen to the ambient sounds in the location. Any ambient sounds, whether from the family television or the neighbor’s boom box will mask the children’s speech and make it more difficult to transcribe. If at all possible, it is best to ask the family politely to turn off any sources of noise. Be careful to avoid setting the recorder near any appliance that produces noise or vibrations. A handheld recorder is often the best way to keep a microphone near the children.
Planning the Recordings
Time will always be the limiting factor. I estimate that a one-hour recording generally requires two weeks to transcribe. This rate allows 24 hour-long recordings to be transcribed by one person per year, allowing some time away for holidays and accidents. This schedule limits the documentation to recording one child twice a month for one hour over the course of one year, recording two children twice a month for a half-hour, or recording eight children for three hours each. Stoll (2016:145) suggests recording each child for up to five hours in a single week, but such a schedule may not be practical in all cultures. Of course, more transcribers or more time allows more recordings to be transcribed, but increases costs. The recording schedule is highly dependent on the number and ages of the available children, which differ by the size of the language community. Recording three two-year-old children over the course of a year is ideal (c.f. Brown, 1973), but cross-sectional recordings of five children aged 2;0, 2;6, 3;0, 3;6 and 4;0 also yield useful information (c.f. Cook, 2006; Mithun, 1989). Milroy (1987) provides a classic discussion of the factors that influence the quality of language samples.
Language acquisition researchers will need to seek permission from the families and language community to conduct their research. This is a delicate process that is difficult to do without a deep understanding of the community and its language situation. A very real hazard in work with indigenous communities is that an outside investigator will unknowingly stumble into a situation that leads to malign rumors about the purposes of the research. Many indigenous communities have good reason to be suspicious of outsiders because of their experiences with strangers taking their resources or their children. The process can be made easier by seeking the help of experts who work with the community, who can identify the conditions for doing research in the community, who can introduce the researcher to community members who can aid in the research, and who can vouch for the integrity of the researcher. These intermediaries can be linguists or health workers or ideally members of the community themselves such as college students or schoolteachers.
Working with small children will likely attract attention from the community as well as institutional review boards. It is essential to provide children and their families with information about the purpose of language documentation, and how their identities will be protected. They should also be informed about the significance of their contributions. It is of utmost importance to protect the children and their families from harm so it may be necessary to use audio-recorders rather than video cameras in order to protect family identities while making the recordings available on a community language archive. This is not a problem that can be taken lightly, and must be tailored to the needs of the individual families and communities.
Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cook, E.-D. (2006). The patterns of consonantal acquisition and change in Chipewyan (Dene Suliné). International Journal of American Linguistics 72(2), 236-263.
Demuth, K. (1996b). Collecting spontaneous production data. In D. McDaniel, C. McKee & H. S. Cairns (Eds.), Methods for assessing children's syntax (pp. 3-22). MIT Press.
Kelly, B. F., Forshaw, W., Nordlinger, R. & Wigglesworth, G. (2015). Linguistic diversity in first language acquisition research: Moving beyond the challenges. First language 35(4-5), 286-304.
Miller, J. F. (1981). Assessing language production in children: Experimental procedures. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Milroy, L. (1987). Observing and analysing natural language: A critical account of sociolinguistic method. New York: Basil Blackwell.
Mithun, M. (1989). The acquisition of polysynthesis. Journal of Child Language 16, 285-312.
Stoll, S. (2016). Studying language acquisition in different linguistic and cultural settings. In N. Bonvillain (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of linguistic anthropology (pp. 140-158). New York: Routledge.
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