The Influence of Child-Directed Speech on Children’s First Language Acquisition

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

45 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1 Nativist Approach
2.2 Emergence Approach

3. Child-Directed Speech
3.1 Joint Attention Comes First
3.2 What is Child-Directed Speech?.
3.3 Relevant Characteristics of Child-Directed Speech

4. Study Cases
4.1 Influence on Child-Directed Speech in Different Circumstances
4.1.1 Head-Turning-Preference Procedure
4.1.2 The Effects of Maternal Depression on Child-Directed Speech
4.1.3 Gender Differences in Child-Directed Speech
4.1.4 Discussion
4.2 Child-Directed Speech in Other Cultures
4.2.1 Quiché Mayan Speech Community
4.2.2 Kaluli Speech Community
4.2.3 Discussion

5. Conclusion and Outlook

Tables of Figures and Tables


German Summary

1. Introduction

“Language Acquisition represents, perhaps, the most impressive achievement in human development. This is all the more fascinating since this process is quite rapid, and the successive stages for the progressive acquisition of the native language follow a quite similar chronology across languages.” (Dominey et al. 2004: 122)

What the linguist Peter Dominey here states describes people’s fascination about language, specifically language acquisition. Both are highly complex frameworks whose investigation, indeed, can be regarded as an inexhaustible enterprise. Nevertheless, research has been willing to face that challenge, and, over several decades, linguists have been trying to find out how exactly children acquire their native language. Children all over the world, regardless of language and culture, eventually acquire their mother tongue. However, the question how exactly children learn language has not been answered unanimously. One of the interesting observations in language is that adults change their speech while talking to children - a phenomenon referred to as Child-Directed Speech (CDS). Why does this adjustment take place? Changing one’s own speech in conversation with children seems to occur quite intuitively and can be observed in any situation of everyday life in which adults and children are involved. Due to the examination of cross-cultural issues in my minor bachelor studies and given my personal interest in other cultures, I attach high importance to the consideration of cultural differences when investigating children’s first language acquisition. Moreover, it not only seems to be highly interesting but also indispensable to link theoretical aspects with practical relevance and vice versa: Ongoing general discussions about upbringing and education have revealed the high social relevance of this subject. Thus, the aim of this paper is to examine the influence of CDS on children’s first language acquisition. This will be accomplished by linking theoretical linguistic theory with empirical findings from different fields of research.

The first chapter of this paper will provide theoretical background information regarding two different approaches to language acquisition, namely Chomsky’s Nativist Approach and the Emergence Approach. The subsequent chapter considers the role of joint attention in relation to CDS as well as the investigation of specific CDS characteristics. Thereby, the development of a communication process between adult and child will be described.

In order to discuss the practical influence of CDS on children’s first language acquisition, five study cases will be examined in chapter 4. Three of them focus on how different circumstances influence CDS. The first research study deals with a specific measurement technique called Head-Turn Preference Procedure for the purpose of testing children’s preference for either child-directed or adult-directed speech. The second study investigates the interdependency between mothers with symptoms of depression and children’s cognitive and language development. The third research study introduced in this paper deals with gender differences in CDS and their effect on children’s first language acquisition. These investigations particularly concentrated on intonation patterns in male and female CDS. Chapter 4 ends with a short summary of these three studies.

For the purpose of discussing cross-cultural aspects of the research question, the last two studies examined in this paper deal with the occurrence of CDS in cultural settings completely different from Western civilisation (chapter 4.2): The fourth study investigates the speech of Quiché people in the western highlands of Guatemala with the aim to identify specific linguistic features in speech to children. The other cultural study regards the Kaluli speech community in Papua New Guinea. Here, the subjects of the study were rather observed from an ethnological point of view in order to assess their interaction with children. The last subchapter will again summarise and discuss these two cultural studies.

The paper closes with a conclusion which discusses the initial question of this paper if and what influence CDS has on children’s first language acquisition and gives a short outlook as regards the scientific and social relevance of the issue.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1 Nativist Approach

In order to explore the influence of child-directed speech on children’s first language acquisition, this chapter will provide an overview on the field of research in language acquisition. In the beginning, one of the most widely known and debated approaches in language acquisition, the Nativist Approach, will be considered. Afterwards, an alternative, the so- called emergence approach of language learning will be taken into consideration.

Noam Chomsky can be regarded as a representative of the nativist theory and is said to have revolutionized the field of linguistics and the whole study of language development (cf. Hoff 2006: 10). According to Gillen (2003: 82) and Saxton (2010: 19), Chomsky turned the linguistic research into another direction, namely into a branch of biological science. He found reason to assume that there has to be an innate concept of language skills in every human mind. Chomsky investigated a concept which is called Universal Grammar (UG). He stated that UG could be found in every human language. Moreover, he claimed that an innate knowledge in every newborn’s mind is somehow connected to UG. The environment of each child was only supposed to trigger the innate knowledge of the UG (cf. Gillen 2003: 83). Chomsky (1993: 519) summarises his principle of language learning in the following way:

Language learning is not really something that the child does; it is something that happens to the child placed in an appropriate environment, much as the child’s body grows and matures in a predetermined way when provided with appropriate nutrition and environmental stimulation.

Furthermore, Chomsky regards language as an organ of the body. He does not expect children to be able to talk from birth on. However, he assumes that if children are born with arms and legs, they may as well be born with an innate knowledge of language, which has not yet grown and entirely developed (cf. Saxton 2010: 187). Jackendoff (2002: 71) complements Chomsky’s position by saying that “Universal Grammar is not the grammar of any single language: it is the prespecification in the brain that permits the learning of language to take place.” There remains the question how children are eventually able to learn their mother tongue. It is important to mention that both UG as well as individual experience form the speaker’s particular knowledge of a language (cf. Saxton 2010: 187).

To summarise the difference between UG and the acquisition of a particular language, it is worth repeating Chomsky’s words on this topic:

The grammar of a particular language is an account of the state of the language faculty after it has been presented with the data of experience; universal grammar is an account of the initial state of the language faculty before any experience. (Chomsky 1988: 61)

Linguistic knowledge can thus be regarded as a result of UG in interaction with language experience (cf. Hoff 2006: 13). Chomsky’s assumptions that every child knows far more about language than could possibly be learned from experience leads to his ‘poverty of the stimulus argument’ (PSA) (cf. Saxton 2010: 197). He states that the input a child receives from his environment is basically impoverished (cf. Saxton 2010: 198). Supporting Chomsky’s argument, Laurence et al. (2001: 221) remarked: “The general idea behind the PSA is that the knowledge acquired in language acquisition far outstrips the information that is available in the environment.”

Chomsky’s PSA includes certain key elements. First, Chomsky (1965: 31) defines that what children hear is “fairly degenerate[d] in quality”. Secondly, he assumes that children do not receive negative evidence , which means that parents do not correct children’s grammatical errors neither do they teach them what exactly is grammatically correct (cf. Saxton 2010: 198). Thirdly, Chomsky introduces a property of grammar, known as structure dependence (cf. Saxton 2010: 199). Structure dependence describes the phenomenon that children seem to have “knowledge of certain aspects of grammar, despite a lack of evidence for them in the input” (Saxton 2010: 198)

2.2 Emergence Approach

In contrast, there are several approaches that do not or only to a certain extent agree with Chomsky’s point of view. As mentioned previously, Chomsky features the innate linguistic knowledge as being responsible for language acquisition. Quite different from this nativist view, the Interactionist approach, for example, mainly focuses on the social environment and largely ignores the innateness hypothesis to be accountable for language learning (cf. Kauschke 2012: 145).

Going beyond merely nativist or only interactivist approaches, there has been a development towards new kinds of approaches, the so-called emergence models. They can be regarded as hybrid approaches because they examine the language acquisition process from several different perspectives. For instance, language can be regarded as a developing product and an interaction between children’s abilities and environmental factors. Moreover, children have at their disposal a certain set of learning mechanisms by which they are able to handle their linguistic input. The emergence approach also assumes that children create a specific knowledge system which will help them to expand their knowledge depending on the provided input. Significant for this interaction are both the children’s skills and the environment. On the basis of this dynamic, new abilities can emerge which in turn cannot be traced back to either internal or external influences (cf. Kauschke 2012: 148). The human faculty of speech can therefore be described as an ability to creatively apply a deductive system. This capacity can be regarded as an evolutionary performance, which cannot be found in any other species. Children are able to acquire and later use a language learning system because of their genetic condition as well as their language input. They receive fine-tuned forms of communication and their caregivers are influential factors (cf. Kauschke 2012: 149).

In addition, Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff (1996: 42) assume that “[b]oth families of theories grant that the child has at least some linguistic sensitivities at the start (if not a full grammar) and is capable of conceptualizing the environment in terms of language-relevant cognitive and social categories.” Rickheit et al. (2010: 91), too, take the view that the interaction between both genetic and environmental factors is responsible for children’s language acquisition. In addition, they suggest that besides cognitive factors situational, emotional and cultural factors should equally be taken into account for future research. In sum, the emergence model represents an approach that attempts to strike a balance between different language acquisition theories that have been investigated so far.

The introduction of the above-mentioned theoretical approaches has shown that, on the one hand, the study of language learning “is a multifaceted field that includes a variety of very different research enterprises” (Hoff 2006: 11). On the other hand, it becomes reasonable that for the past decades the whole linguistic investigation and research process has been dealing with the highly controversial question whether children do or do not have any innate linguistic knowledge of language. Therefore, from Chomsky’s perspective, child-directed speech would largely be regarded as unnecessary since the input is considered to have no influence on the children’s language learning process at all.

Regarding alternative approaches, for example the emergence model, one might ask to what extent child-directed speech can be regarded as necessary for the children in order to acquire their native language. In the subsequent chapter, the subject matter of child-directed speech will be introduced and explained in detail.

3. Child-Directed Speech

3.1 Joint Attention Comes First

In this chapter, the role of joint attention in the context of child-directed speech as well as the language acquisition process will be examined. The two subsequent chapters will deal with the clarification of child-directed speech and also consider specific characteristics of child- directed speech.

In general, joint attention can be considered as a precondition for every human communication. Without the setting of joint visual attention, no interactive communication could emerge. To answer the question what is actually meant by joint attention, the linguist Butterworth (1995: 29) gives the following example: “Deictic gaze, or joint visual attention as it is often called, may be defined simply as ‘looking where someone else is looking’.” Therefore, the language-learning child assumes a rather active role in the communication process. The caretaker and the child are somehow situated in a triadic interaction in which an event or object becomes their shared centre of interest (cf. Dominey et al. 2004: 137). The joint attention process starts by getting the attention of the addressee. Caretakers will use a vocative, for example the child’s name, or an endearment like sweetheart. They as well tend to use attention getters such as look or see (cf. Clark 2009: 37). Joint attention interactions between adult caretakers and young children often take place during everyday situations like bathing, feeding or book reading (cf. Dominey eta. 2004: 129). Thereby, children get the chance to recognize others’ intents and to participate in speech acts (cf. Wagner 2006: 71). Thus, joint attention has become a communicative function in infants’ prelinguistic period since it provides them with the opportunity to communicate information about objects (cf. Wagner 2006: 77). Dominey suggests that there seems to be a high possibility that infants automatically participate in joint attention settings at a younger age, perhaps even before they are one year old (cf. Dominey et al. 2004: 129). Caretakers can follow or direct their child’s attention. In doing so, they can use language to change the child’s focus of attention to different objects or events. It is quite remarkable that children whose mothers had an increased tendency to follow their attention were more likely to have larger vocabulary than those whose mothers lead their attention to a different object or event (cf. Dominey et al. 2004: 129).

Joint attention helps children develop an ability to coordinate their intention with a social partner referring to an object or event. The older infants become, the stronger they are trying to lead the adults’ attention to what they want. In fact, it can be stated that they develop their own communication tools in order to satisfy their goals (cf. Clark 2009: 28). Clark (2009: 28) describes the children’s communicative goals as follows:

By twelve months of age, they can get adults to open things, offer things that are out of the child’s own reach, and attain a variety of goals they couldn’t achieve in their own. In doing this, they first attract the adult’s attention, then communicate what they want with combinations of gestures, vocalizations, and eventually words.

Thus, it is now possible to differentiate between joint attention and the process of language learning. Dominey argues that via eye contact the attention of the children is gained and afterwards maintained with the help of child-directed speech. Indeed, joint attention builds a necessary basis for child-directed speech communication and needs an interactive context in order to establish the basis for language learning (cf. Dominey et al. 2004: 129). Consequently, this statement can be traced back to the above-mentioned emergence model in chapter 2.2. There, the interaction between communication partners is regarded to be co- responsible for language acquisition. In the following, the meaning of child-directed speech will be considered.

3.2 What is Child- Directed Speech?

“In all speech communities there are probably special ways of talking to young children which differ more or less systematically from the more normal form of the language used in ordinary conversation among adults” (Ferguson 1977: 209)

What the linguist Charles Ferguson remarked raises the question why people change their speech from adult to child-directed speech. In order to clarify this issue, the influence of child-directed speech on children’s first language acquisition will be taken into consideration. According to William O’Grady (2005: 176), child-directed speech can be described as a specific type of speech, uttered by the children’s caretakers.

Compared to regular adult-directed speech, child-directed speech is a particular way of speaking with simplified syntax and meaning and exaggerated prosodic structure, well- matched to the abilities of the child (cf. Dominey et al. 2004: 125). In literature, this special way of talking to children is often referred to as, for instance, ‘input language’, ‘baby talk’, ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’. Since the last two terms may be misleading as not only mothers and parents use this specific way of talking to children, the term child-directed speech (CDS) will be used in the following.

Why do people change their speech when talking to children? Dominey argues that the alteration of speech is produced in an intuitive and natural manner, and is infrequently used outside the context of the interaction with a child (cf. Dominey et al. 2004: 125). Interestingly, CDS does not only seem to be restricted to children, but also appears in speech to foreigners, in speech to dogs and even in CDS of children themselves (cf. Gallaway et al 1994: 17). One could argue that it is obvious that caretakers change their speech when speaking to children. In fact, after having successfully built up joint attention, it is vital to maintain the child’s attention in order to communicate. Thus, the change of adults’ speech might be the reason why children are able to maintain their attention on the joint object or event. According to Gallaway et al. (1994: 18), caretakers do not just want to pass information to the children but, more importantly, they want to engage children to be part of an interactive communication. And even from the perspective of adults, they themselves tend to be motivated by the desire to communicate rather than to teach language (cf. Gallaway et al. 1994: 19).

In the following chapter, particular characteristics of CDS will be examined with the objective of identifying what actually happens during the communication process between children and adults.

3.3 Relevant Characteristics of Child-Directed Speech

When observing the interaction between adults and children, it is quite striking how the speech of adults suddenly changes compared to their way of communication with other adults. In the following, some relevant characteristics of CDS and their potentially connected intentions will be examined. It has been analysed that, for example, the pitch and the intonation of adult speech varies. Furthermore, the altering quality of speech in terms of rate, pausing and fluency as well as the amount of repetitions and questions in speech will be examined.

The first characteristics investigated are the pitch and intonation in speech. According to Peter Dominey (2004: 126), the raising of the voice pitch can be regarded as one of the most significant and specific characteristics in CDS. Eve Clark (cf. 2009: 33) noticed that there is a noticeable pitch change “from about three-quarters of an octave to one-and-a-half octaves”. She also assumes that children tend to be more focused on very high pitch in speech. Noticeable, the younger the children, the more attentive they are (cf. Clark 2009: 33). Additionally, it is assumed that mothers use a higher pitch in situations in which children signalise a positive emotional engagement (cf. Saxton 2010: 81). Furthermore, Dominey argues that the pitch tone changes depending on different situations. If the intention, for example, is to calm the child, the pitch will be lower than in normal speech. If, on the contrary, the aim is to motivate the child to participate in a dialogue and to pay attention to what has been said, the pitch is expected to be higher (cf. Dominey 2004: 126) Supportingly, Fernald (1984: 13) remarked:

The exaggerated intonation of mothers’ speech, with its greatly expanded pitch range and high degree of pitch continuity, thus maximizes both perceptual contrast, necessary for engaging and maintaining infant attention, and perceptual coherence, facilitating the task of following the voice of a single speaker.

This quote supports the assumption that the change of the pitch underlies a linguistic intention. It seems to be relevant for adults to change their pitch in speech in order to attract and hold the child’s attention. Nonetheless, other factors such as facial expression, eye contact, touching, and pointing play an important role to attract the child’s attention (cf. Clark 2009: 33).

In addition to a higher pitch in speech, adults also tend to use an exaggerated intonation pattern. On the one hand, it can be assumed that exaggerated intonation contours “produce a stimulus with high contrast.” (Hoff 2006: 115) On the other hand, exaggerated intonation may contain attention-getting properties as well (Hoff 2006: 115). For example, the intonation in utterances such as No or don ’ t touch that is considerably different from that in utterances like good or clever girl. Moreover, Hoff (2006: 116) assumes that these different intonations for both prohibitions and praise are more or less the same across different languages.

Another important characteristic which can be found in CDS, is the occurrence of rate, pausing and fluency in adult speech. Adults tend to add more pauses between sentences and towards the end of sentences. Moreover, these pauses are often lengthened in comparison to adult-directed speech. Dominey (2004: 125) further identified that vowels are lengthened, again, with the aim of attracting the child’s attention. The occurring slower rate in CDS can therefore be explained by the above-mentioned pauses (cf. Clark 2009: 35). Another reason for a slower rate in speech is the use of fewer words. In general, utterances used by adults are shorter, they seem to be simplified in structure and consist of rather basic constructions. Clark (2009: 35) and Saxton (2010: 81) argue that CDS will hardly include coordinate and subordinate clauses nor any complements or negations. Concerning the fluency of CDS, adults barely produce false starts, mispronunciations or hesitations (cf. Clark 2009: 36). To illustrate this feature, the results of a research study by Patricia Broan (1972) are shown in Table 1. The survey investigated the mean numbers of disfluencies per one hundred words in adult speech and differentiated between three different addressee groups.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 1. Mean number of disfluencies per one hundred words

(Source: Broan, Patricia A. (1972). The verbal environment of the language-learning child. Monograph of the American Speech & Hearing Association 17. American Speech-Language- Hearing Association.) (Clark 2009: 36)

By means of these research results, it can clearly be assumed that adults have a much higher speech fluency when talking to children during a free play and also when telling a story. In contrast, the disfluencies in adult speech are much more frequent than in CDS. Another aspect important to mention is that adults’ speech to children is remarkable for its well-formed grammar (cf. Saxton 2010: 81). One could argue that children are in a way attracted to this simplified style of speech, which, as a result, will help them maintain their attention on the communicative interaction.


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The Influence of Child-Directed Speech on Children’s First Language Acquisition
College  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
First Language Acquisition
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ISBN (Book)
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influence, child-directed, speech, children’s, first, language, acquisition
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Jessica Schadow (Author), 2014, The Influence of Child-Directed Speech on Children’s First Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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