The Canberra Longitudinal Child Language Project: What's new with our colleagues down under

I’m Evan Kidd, an international co-investigator in LuCiD. I work at The Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia, where I am the head of the ANU Language Lab. We conduct research on the psychology of language, with a focus on children’s language development. 

In the lab we are currently running a range of studies, the largest of which is the Canberra Longitudinal Child Language Project (CLCL). In the CLCL we are following just over 100 children from the age of 9 months until they are 5 years. The project has many parallels with LuCiD’s Language 0–5 project in terms of scope and the fact that the project is longitudinal (in fact, some components of the two projects are coordinated). However, in the CLCL we are focussing specifically on children’s language processing across development, and how individual differences in language processing affect language development. For instance, when the children are 9 months we measure their ability to identify words in running speech, a task they must do in order to learn words. We do this using a method could electroencephalography (EEG), which records brain activity from (perfectly safe!) electrodes placed on the children’s scalp. We then play the children sentences containing target words that they are unlikely to know (e.g., The mudlark is in the tree). Shortly after the end of the sentence we either repeat the target word (mudlark) or play a different word (e.g., magpie) and record children’s brain activity. The children’s EEG response reveals differences in children’s ability to recognise the target word, which is related to their subsequent vocabulary development. That is, even at 9 months when children are saying very little we can reliably predict how well they acquire language well into their second year. The project will continue to investigate higher components of language, such as children’s vocabulary and grammatical processing.

In another study we are investigating how specific types of interaction between infants and their primary caregivers facilitates language development. In this study, conducted by recent PhD graduate Dr Sara Quinn, children play with their caregivers with a range of toys and their interactions are coded on a number of dimensions. Sara found that when the infant-parent dyads engaged in pretend play (e.g., pretending a banana is a telephone) their linguistic and social environment is more complex and helpful for language learning. In particular, she found that children hear more questions in pretend play and that these questions elicit more conversational turns. The infants and parents also engage in more frequent and longer episodes of joint attention (i.e., attending to and talking about an object) and gesture more. These are all important behaviours for language development, suggesting that pretend play is an important social behaviour that promotes language development. If you’re interested in hearing more you might like to watch a TED talk I gave on play and imaginary companions

These are just two of the studies that we are conducting in the ANU language lab, but we do a whole lot more research, including work on how children and adults learn the statistics of language, how children acquire different languages (e.g., Chinese, German, Finnish, and Qaqet – a language spoken on one of the islands of Papua New Guinea), and how people use slang (specifically, Australian Slang).

And of course, we collaborate with LuCiD on the 0-5 Project. Stay tuned for more results from Australia!


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