Now you see me, now you don’t! Can children learn language during online interactions?

Our conversational interactions with children are hugely beneficial to their development. Children often repeat the words and sentence structures that they hear adults use with them, and this helps them to learn and produce their own language. But do children always repeat and learn from the language they hear? Does it matter if a conversation partner is in the same room as them or not, or even if they are visible or not? In response to recent increases in children’s online activity, I worked as part of a team of researchers from the Universities of Warwick and Edinburgh to explore whether children can learn sentence structures from an adults’ speech heard during a live conference call.

When we consider how language input might support children’s word and grammar learning, we primarily think of input coming from in-person interactions – parents, grandparents, teachers and other adults talking face-to-face with children. However, children are more frequently engaging in interactions with a conversational partner who is remote (e.g., via video calls with or without the camera on), especially during and since the COVID-19 pandemic. While previous research demonstrates that young children can learn single words during live online interactions with an adult (Roseberry, et al., 2014), our study was the first to explore whether children can learn more complex language forms in these contexts. We investigated whether children could learn passive sentence structures (e.g., the dog is being patted the boy), which are typically difficult structures to learn, via online interactions and whether this is affected by whether they can see, or not, their conversational partner during the conversation.

Fifty-eight three-year-olds, who would be in the early stages of learning the passive construction, and sixty five-year-olds, who would be more proficient with passives, took part in our study on a Microsoft Teams video call. Children took turns in describing pictures with a researcher who alternated in using active (e.g., a dog chased the cat) and passive (e.g., the cat was chased by a dog) sentence structures. For half the children in each age group, the researcher kept their camera on during the picture game so that these children had a video call and for the remaining half, the researcher kept their camera off, so that those children had an audio-only call. We then assessed how likely children were to use passive structures to describe their own pictures, depending on whether they had just heard the researcher use a passive or an active, and whether they could see the researcher during the call.

We observed immediate effects of language exposure on three- and five-year-olds’ picture descriptions: children produced more passives immediately after hearing an adult use a passive than after an active structure. Furthermore, the effect of language experience accumulated over time, meaning that the more passives children heard over the course of the session, the more likely they were to produce them. We did note that video calls increased younger children’s attentiveness and engagement compared to audio-only calls, with some expressing a desire to see their conversational partner. However, interactions via video and audio-only calls were equally beneficial in facilitating children’s production of passives. Importantly, we find that our results are consistent with earlier studies on in-person interactions.

Our study goes to show that children are sensitive to different forms of language exposure and they can be remarkably efficient in using their language experiences, whether in-person or online! Our findings also open up the possibility of conducting more online research to understand how children acquire language and the contexts in which they do so.

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This study was part of the Language Experience and Development (LEaD) project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/R007721/1]. This project explores how children learn to use language based on their prior experience interacting with others in different contexts. For further information about our research studies and workshops, please visit the LEaD project website


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