Lost in Translation: UTM study listens in on speech development in early childhood

Toddler sits in chair and wears large stereo headphones
Friday, January 12, 2018 - 3:26pm
Blake Eligh

If you’ve ever listened in on two toddlers at play, you might have wondered how much of their babbling might get lost in translation. A new study from the University of Toronto Mississauga provides surprising insights about how much children and adults understand when they speak to each other.

The study by associate professor of psychology Elizabeth Johnson and post-doctoral fellows Angela Cooper and Natalie Fecher investigated how well toddlers understood words spoken by themselves, adults and other children.

“Children have to know so much before they can actually produce a word. it’s incredibly complicated,” says Johnson, who runs UTM’s Child Language and Speech Studies Lab. “We were interested in how well toddlers could understand themselves.”

Working with 54 pairs of mothers and children aged 30- to 36-month of age, the team recorded participants saying 32 words of varying difficulty—such as dog, cup, stroller and strawberry—that were commonly understood by toddlers. On a return visit, participants were shown two unrelated images as they listened to the recorded words, and eye tracking technology recorded whether they looked to the correct image when hearing words spoken by themselves, another toddler, their own mother, or another child’s mother.

Hear researcher Angela Cooper coax a young study participant to say the word "strawberry." [Download]

Listen to study participants pronounce the word "stroller." [Download]

The researchers discovered that children could readily identify words spoken by adults, but faced more difficulty identifying words spoken by other children or themselves. “We found that two-and-a-half-year-olds can understand their own mother just as well as an unfamiliar mother,” Johnson says. “Crucially, they understand adult voices better than either their own voice or the voice of another child.”

“No study has ever looked at children’s perception of other children’s voices at this age,” Johnson says. “These findings have important theoretical implications for how children mentally represent words. The way they pronounce a word isn’t the way it’s represented in their mind.”

“This is an age where kids are producing substantial vocabulary, but their pronunciations are quite distinct from the adult form,” she says. “Their perception and comprehension far exceeds their production of speech.”

“Children understand so much more than you think they do, and they know so much more about the sound structure of words than they let on by the way they speak,” she says. “They understand you better than they understand themselves.”

“Toddlers’ comprehension of adult and child talkers: Adult targets versus vocal tract similarity” appears in the April 2018 edition of Cognition and was supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canada Research Chairs program.