Child language documentation: a LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last night’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

This month we were joined by Barbara Kelly (The University of Melbourne), who has extensive experience in the fields of language documentation and child language acquisition for a discussion into the why and how of documenting child language. Barb started the discussion by mentioning that many people who work in language documentation have the perception that child language is not relevant to them – but child data is relevant to anyone. Although the general fieldwork model of only working with adult native speakers is the current general practise it is only one way to document a language and documenting child language can also provide useful data.

Child language acquisition data is important for a number of reasons, and the discussion only touched upon a few of the most pressing. One of the most pressing is that language doesn’t occur in a vacuum, to get a full understanding of how the language works and is used it is insufficient to just record adults talking with adults. In language communities adults spend a lot of time interacting with children and so how they talk, and are talked to by the children, are important. It’s also important to understand how the language is acquired. Granted, it’s not possible for a single researcher to work on ever angle, but to even collect data while on fieldwork gives someone else the opportunity to investigate potentially interesting acquisition patterns. We might have a good idea of how English language features develop, but for grammatical features outside of English such as evidential or highly polysynthetic languages there are still some very basic questions that need to be addressed. Also, in terms of language maintenance and revival working with children is paramount. By asking them to share their language with you there’s the potential to help them understand what is special or important about their language, and in reclamation projects the easiest way to figure out materials to teach a child is to listen to what a child sounded like. Finally, working with children can be fun and challenging. It’s an opportunity to throw out the last shred of control you thought you had over a fieldwork situation and just see where a session takes you.

There is certainly a growing number of people here in Melbourne who realise just how useful child language documentation can be. Ruth Singer, Anna Margetts, Tonya Stebbins, Birgit Hellwig and Sara Ciesielski are all currently commencing or working on projects relating to child language acquisition within a fieldwork model. There is also the long running Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition (ACLA) project which is now in a second iteration, and the Murrin-Patha child language acquisition project Barb Kelly is currently working on with Jill Wigglesworth, Rachel Nordlinger and Joe Blythe.

So given the importance of collecting child language data, and the growing interest in such research possibilities, the discussion for the evening was centred around four main issues; project design, ethics, equipment and tools.

Setting up a project well from the start is important, but especially with children. You need to ask yourself how big will it be, how many children to involve, and the age of the children. Will it be a longitudinal study where you require the same children to be in the same place for an extended period of time, or are there sufficient numbers of children to work across several age groups at once? Both methodologies have benefits and drawbacks depending on the specific questions being addressed.

Part of the design of any successful project with child is factoring in how to work with them. There’s not the same opportunity to control the situation that you may have with adults, and it’s generally better not trying to. There is a method of just leaving the camera running for long periods of interaction – but this can leave you with a lot of raw data, not all of which might be useful if you have a very specific research question. It can also be hard in those situations to not make your presents too noticeable. Barb recounted her experience of working with children in Nepal, who were so fixated by her foreign appearance and camera that the majority of sessions were spent staring at her. Barb pointed to Joe Blythe’s work as a great example of really naturalistic data – achieved because Joe wasn’t too concerned about controlling too many parameters.

Of course, it’s all well and good to have a really excellent research question and project design, but most people’s concern about collecting child language data involves the need to get ethics. Of course, each institution’s ethics requirements vary, so there’s no use having a specific discussion about specific requirements of a single institution’s ethics protocol. The requirement won’t just vary depending on the institution you’re working at, but the community you’re working with. Here in Australia the ethics requirements for working with children in an Indigenous community are often more stringent than working with non-Indigenous children. Still, there are some general points to make about applying for ethics. One of the best ways to apply for ethics is to frame the data collection as “multi-generational” or as the study of a whole family. By showing that you’re interested in collecting data across all age groups you can diminish some of the questions that come with a child-only study. This also goes the other way as well, if you’re applying for ethics to collect data on any fieldwork project make the scope as broad as possible from the start so that if you do find that you want to pursue a line of research involving a feature of child speech you don’t need to worry about applying to broaden your ethics post hoc.

Most fieldworkers are well-versed when it comes to gear to take on a trip, but there are a couple of extra things to consider when planning to document child language. Barb stressed the importance of always recording with video as well as audio. Children can be hard to understand in natural speech, and often use gestures, so the video data is of great importance. Make sure you take a good tripod along as well. It’s tough to find a good compromise between the rigidity needed to survive fieldwork adventures but also the light weight to make it less of a burden (good suggestions always welcome!). On the topic of audio, use individual mics for the children you want to focus on. These can be worn by the children using vests, backpacks, bumbags or clipped to their clothes, allowing them to move around without losing their audio. There is the possibility to use something like the Zoom H4n, and make use of the four channels by using two of them to record the ambient sound and then link the other two up to the children’s external mics using the XLR jacks.

The next things we talked about were tools. Obviously these are something you’re going to have considered when designing your project, depending on what outcomes you wish to achieve. Many child language acquisition tools are designed for closely controlled clinical studies looking at particular constructions and are not regularly made available to other researchers. One tool that has been very successful across many languages is Mercer Mayer’s collection of wordless illustrated picture books including “A boy, a Dog, and a Frog” and “Frog, Where are you?” These are useful for getting consistent can cross-linguistically comparable data, especially regarding temporal construction of events. Another tool that Barb recently developed was another picture story set based on a fable of the Jackal and Crow. This story involves more events like thinking, speaking, desire, inner states and intentions because these kind of features are of interest to the Social Cognition research project currently underway and Barb wanted to create a tool that could be used with adults and children. If you’d like to know more about the Jackal and Crow research tool you can email me (l [dot] gawne@pgrad.unimelb.edu.au).

The final thing we talked about was returning materials to the community when working with child data. There was a general consensus that while people might feel ok about returning audio recordings, copies of work done or dictionaries to adult consultants there needed to be a slightly different approach with children. Returning DVDs of footage to parents was suggested, and Ruth Singer mentioned that one project had quite a lot of success with creating small videos that people could keep on their mobile phone. Creating photo albums (possibly even with stills from high quality video recordings) was another possibility other had said was successful. Creating booklets from the stories children had told (possibly with local photos or drawings by the children) were also possible outcomes.

Hopefully with more people interested in child language it will become a more common data collection activity for fieldwork. This meant that the last Melbourne LIP for the year ended on quite an optimistic note!

[In December we’re bringing LIP to ALS! Join us Thursday 1st December at 7:30 in the Cellar bar / Fellows Bar at University House, Australian National University. We’ll be talking all about just how easy and fun it is to set up your own Linguistics in the Pub. More information is available on the RNLD website.]

3 Comments

  1. Wamut says:

    Very interesting again. I like these recaps of LIP. Keep ’em coming.

    One point that disturbs me though – the discussion on the ethics of doing linguistic research on children is actually just a discussion on how to get past an ethics review board. The two are not the same thing at all and it makes me sad to think that we linguists might be reduced to thinking of the ethics of our trade in this very narrow way. 🙁

    But aside from that – great! Can’t wait for LIP’s 2011 Canberra tour.

  2. Lauren says:

    Wamut – yes, you’re right, the summary does make us look rather dubious. I suppose that’s because all of us were working from a baseline of assuming that we’d be behaving in an ethical manner to begin with. The majority to people I talk to about collecting child data tell me that their institutional policy is the main inhibitor to collecting child data. Whether this is just a convenient excuse for not being interested in collecting child data is another matter.

    When working with children of course you not only need institutional ethics approval, but you need to act ethically as well. Children will tired more quickly of activities than adults, and so for their comfort you need to make activities shorter, more open ended and with a focus on their entertainment as much as your data gathering needs (which are constrains we considered when designing the Jackal and Crow story). For that reason many people find it’s good to work with many children for short periods of time, unlike adults where the model is usually for one or two primary consultants. You need to have the child onside, but also their carer and/or school. This not only comes to how the sessions are recorded and what’s recorded but also what is done with that content.

    I’m sure there are other ethical issues specifically pertaining to collecting child data that I’ve forgot to write down, I’m happy for anyone else to enumerate them!

  3. Felicity Meakins says:

    I agree Wamut. Ethical considerations need to go beyond what an ethics committee demands of a researcher. Recordings of children and their families are very different types of recordings from recordings of traditional narratives or elicitation from respected community elders. Naturalistic recordings (inc. in the context of child language research, conversational research etc) require a high level of familiarity with communities and acceptance of the researcher. Of course many researchers achieve this regardless of their research topic. Nonetheless in the case of language usage research, it is essential. And the result can be dynamite recordings. But recordings need to be treated very carefully. They are often highly personal portraits of intimacy among kin, and in this respect, cannot just be treated as data.

Leave a Reply