New unit to study young children's language skills

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The ways that young children learn words and develop language skills, including how to hold a conversation, are to come under scrutiny at a new academic unit.

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Psychologists at the Kent Child Development Unit, based at Keynes College at the University of Kent at Canterbury, will study how children from 18 months to six years old learn their first language.

Research will also focus on social interaction and how children learn to understand their world.

Equipment for experiments includes an eye tracker that follows where the child is looking at a screen, so researchers can measure what they understand about certain words and sentences.

In one test children are shown two simultaneous video clips - for example a boy feeding a girl and a girl feeding a boy - and then hear sentences describing the action.

They will also watch actions on the screen and then hear a made-up word describing the action.

Kirsten Abbot-Smith, a lecturer in developmental psychology, said that the research would help understand developmental disorders in children.

'Our primary aim is to understand the mechanisms by which normally-developing children learn language - that is, in which situations do they find it easy? In which situations do they find it more difficult?' she said.

'A secondary knock-on result of this could be that the research field in general may have a better idea of how to develop successful interventions for children with specific language impairment.'

A separate study will look at how bilingual toddlers learn language.

Dr Abbot-Smith said, 'There are no standardised language tests for bilingual two-year-olds, so there is no means of knowing whether, if a child isn't speaking English, it is because they are not being exposed to English, or because they are having problems learning both languages.'

- The unit is looking for parents and children to take part in studies. E-mail child@kent.ac.uk and visit www.kent.ac.uk/psychology/childdevelopmentunit

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