By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


When do we start acquiring language? On average, babies say their first words somewhere in the 9 month to 14 month window, and begin to string two words together to make very basic ‘sentences’ at around two years-old. Psychology and linguist researcher Elena Lieven, speaking at this year’s British Science Festival in Chelmsford, explained that our relationship with language begins far earlier than when we first produce words.

“We know that babies can tell the difference between the kind of sound patterns of the language around them, say English from sound patterns of other languages like Japanese, pretty much from birth”, she explained.

Elena detailed fascinating experiments that she has conducted with babies and small children to understand when they start to absorb and understand the language around them. Babies can be tested by observing which pictures they look at when certain words are said, to measure how much they are understanding, and associations they can make between words and images.

Two-year-olds are fascinating subjects; they have begun to talk, they can demonstrate how much a baby’s brain absorbs in the year after they say their first word – if only they would co-operate! Two year-olds, Elena explained, speaking from experience, are “impossible to experiment with because they’ve got total minds of their own…. If a two-year-old doesn’t want to do an experiment, that’s it.”

Three-year-olds tend to be a little more compliant; they have often been socialised to some extent, have been to nursery, and know how to sit at a table, which is always helpful when conducting an experiment!

Elena described an experiment that effectively measures a child’s relationship with language through these early years. Presented with an image of a dog and a doll, 12-month-olds, two-year-olds and three-year-olds are told “find the doggy” or “find the dolly”. The youngest babies need to hear the full word, and take sometime afterwards to process the information before turning to a picture. Two-year-olds need to hear the whole word, but look at the image immediately. Three-year-olds however, turn as soon as they hear the ‘leh’ or ‘geh’ sound.

The floor was opened up to questions from the audience, who asked if Elena had been involved in experiments with children who speak languages other than English.

A lot, was Elena’s answer. “It’s important to test children in other languages because they present problems that English doesn’t.” In Polish, Russian, Estonian and Finnish, languages Elena has conducted experiments around, nouns have around 40 endings to words that indicate things like the gender of the word, whether it’s going into something or coming out, whether it’s singular or plural. In Turkish, words for describing an event differ depending on whether you saw it firsthand. Mandarin and Cantonese are languages which rely more heavily on intonation, so children who speak these languages are more sensitive to tonality.  

Bilingual children also make fascinating case studies for researchers like Elena, but are difficult to conduct good studies on because they all grow up in different contexts. Does the mother speak one language and the father another? What do they speak to each other? Identity enters into the mix of language acquisition, as it does with so many things, particularly around multilingual children. Parents may want their child to speak a heritage language (a language which is different to the dominant one in a social context), as well as the majority language. Language is so tied up with culture, identity and history; people are keen to conserve it through the generations.

“When I was working in Nepal (a country that has 129 languages)”, Elena said, “everybody wanted their children to learn Nepali, even though they also wanted them to learn their heritage language. Because that’s [Nepali] the language of school, it’s the language of getting on.”

Something about language acquisition that transcends culture and geography is repetition. The research is clear, Elena said. There is a strong relationship between the amount of language children hear, and their vocabulary.

So, even though trying to have a chat with a two-year-old might be frustrating at times, it’s all for a greater good!