Children’s speech study to listen in on families’ conversations
Hidden listening devices will be planted on hundreds of Australian children to give researchers more insight into how children learn to talk.
- Children as young as six-months-old will wear the listening devices
- Studies show mothers speak more to their daughters and fathers more to their sons
- Good language skills are vital for ensuing children do not fall behind
David Engelhardt, from South Australia’s Education Department, said the valuable data obtained from 600 families would be used to tailor the school curriculum.
“When those children start school we’ll be able to look at how their educational development, how their other developmental measurements shape up, to see what’s the long-term impact of early language exposure at home,” he said.
Children as young as six months will wear the small recording devices for a full day once every six months, and computers will then analyse proper conversations as well as murmurs and mumbles.
The devices can distinguish individual family members and tell the difference between real-life speech and background noise from the radio or television.
Mr Engelhardt said the study, involving the Fraser Mustard and Telethon Kids institutes, would build on very limited information about Australian children.
“We know that … mums speak more to their girls than they do to their boys, dads tend to speak more to their boys than they do to their girls — we don’t know however how that plays out in Australia,” he said.
“We’ve seen that in the international literature over several decades and in small studies, but no one’s ever done any study of this size and we have no Australian data.”
Bugging the family home for a scientific purpose
He insisted the study was not a form of eavesdropping and the researchers only needed raw data rather than a transcript of any conversations.
“Parents who have already used it tell us that you’re aware of it for 10 minutes, but in a busy day of a busy parent you forget that it’s there,” Mr Engelhardt said.
Tina Dorian’s son Isaac, 3, wore the device as part of a pilot study, and she said it had given her more thought about her children’s different approaches to talking.
“Isaac was quite slow to start talking, start using words, but we found it was because of Lachlan [his older brother was] talking for him,” Ms Dorian said.
She said the family was making a conscious effort to have proper conversations every evening.
“It’s a real time for our family to get together and communicate using words that I think is really important for children, and for us as adults as well because that’s how we learn about our children.”
Simple ways to avoid language woes
The Education Department’s child development and wellbeing director Katerina Eleutherieu said in a world of tablets and expensive toys, instilling good language skills needed an old-fashioned approach.
Ms Eleutherieu said good language skills were vital for ensuring children did not fall behind.
“It’s not who parents are, it’s what they do with their children, so it could be simple activities like reading to their children, singing to their children, walking around the home,” she said.
She expected the study, to be completed in 2021, would lead to changes in education policies across the country.