Researching child language in the field: October LIP

Ruth Singer recaps some of the interesting points of the last week’sLinguistics in the Pub, an informal gathering of linguists and language activists that is held monthly in Melbourne

A number of linguists in Melbourne have recently begun documenting child language in the field. In the November 2011 LIP we discussed what you need to think about if you want to document child language and why you might document child language as part of a broader language documentation project (see blog at http://www.paradisec.org.au/blog/2011/11/child-language-documentation-a-lip-discussion/). The most recent LIP, led by Lauren Gawne and Birgit Hellwig last week, revisited the topic of child language documentation. This allowed those who have recently returned from the field to discuss some of the problems they faced and how they dealt with them. In particular, we looked at the gap between what is possible in remote fieldsites and some of the assumptions in the field of child language acquisition about what type of data is needed to study child language development. The quantity and frequency of data that can be collected in remote fieldsites is quite different to what can be done in the developed world. The limitations can be quite simple. For example, not being able to get accurate information on children’s ages.

To kick off the discussion we looked at ethics, from a personal point of view. The previous LIP on child language was criticised for focussing too much on the requirements of institutional ethics boards at universities, schools etc. So we discussed what types of decisions researchers had made to satisfy their own ethical concerns. A number of researchers said that they had no plans to make their recordings public. This goes against the current trend to make recordings of endangered languages as open as possible, given community consent.

Just to give an example, I have decided to keep access to my recordings of child language closed, until the children are 18. If they are happy for me to open access to their recordings after they are 18, I will do so. However since I am currently recording children in groups at least 3 people, it is likely that in many cases I will not be able to contact all participants so the recording will remain closed. One of the issues we returned to a number of times in the evenings is that our recordings are often made in open environments, which means that many people wander through the field of view. This is in contrast to mainstream child language data, which is usually made in a room through which only a limited number of people pass by. It was mentioned that the CHILDES language database is a great example of an open access archive but it lacks much data from endangered languages. CHILDES contains data recorded from many different studies of child language acquisition. However to upload data to CHILDES you must have the consent of every person who appears, even if just walking past. This is not going to be possible for many recordings of endangered languages in remote areas. It is often difficult to find a room to record in and even if one is found, it is likely that many people will pass through it.

Some of the other assumptions about child language acquisition research that can prove difficult in remote settings:

  • that a mother and child pair form natural conversational partners (they may rarely engage in idle chit-chat)
  • that adults typically play with children (it may be the case that children typically play with other children, not adults

Since it is often difficult for a mother-child pair to engage in conversation in front of the camera, some suggested structured tasks, such as those used at Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Although others pointed out that this makes it difficult to study language socialization, because you are asking people to engage in a culturally foreign activity. Others suggested identifying local games that could be used in language acquisition research.

One big problem in applying the standards of child language acquisition research to remote contexts is the difficulty of obtaining recordings of the same child over regular intervals. Many of the linguists attending the LIP session work in Papua New Guinea and Australian Aboriginal communities. They pointed out that children and often their whole families move around much more than they had expected. The set of children living in a community may barely overlap from one fieldtrip to the next.  In addition, some child language researchers recommend making recordings every 2 months or so, and it is not possible to do this in remote settings. The limitations are partly financial and partly due to the time needed for the linguist to travel to the remote location from their home.

There was quite a bit of time devoted to the technology used to record children, who are rather more mobile than adults. One researcher recommended the use of teddy-bear shaped backpacks for children. These can carry the heavy transmitter of the radio microphone. Everyone agreed that noise is a big issue. Even if there is no wind, which small radio microphones don’t handle well, children’s motion invariably causes noise. One researcher only recorded in areas without many leaves as the noise of these being crushed beneath children’s running feet was too loud.

Birgit Hellwig discussed some of the data from her recent 2 month fieldtrip to Papua New Guinea which she did with child language acquisition specialist Evan Kidd (ANU). She said that by the end of the 2 months, the community they were visiting had more or less gotten used to the cameras and exactly what it meant to have child language researchers in the community. One thing that Birgit emphasised is that what participants need to do is not as obvious to them as we might think. Birgit gave a lovely example in the use of the frog story task. The frog story ‘Frog: where are you?’, is a short children’s picture book without any words. Children were asked to tell the story in their own words. It became apparent during the course of Birgit’s 2 month fieldtrip that changes in how children told the story from week to week were related to narrative practices in the community. The story was circulating in the community, just as any story does, and changing slightly over the course of time. Rather than each new child that particpated in the task telling the story afresh, ‘in their own words’, each told it as it was in its current form in the community. This resulted in remarkable convergence between tellings that were recorded around the same time.

It became clear from the discussion that we can’t expect to do research on child language in the same way as it is done in more controlled environments. We will not get comparable quantities of data for each child. However, whatever we do record is likely to be really interesting. We only have data on child language for a small number of languages, so anything will help.

Leave a Reply