Three linguistics professors research child acquisition of minority languages
The group looked at how language develops in children when exposure to a language is limited, as is often the case for children learning minority languages in the United States.
“Even though research has shown that bilingualism is beneficial in so many ways, and that multilingualism, not monolingualism, is the norm throughout the world, children in the U.S. who speak a language other than English in the home still face many barriers in our society,” Naomi Shin said. “English monolingualism is still regarded as the norm, the benchmark, to which bilinguals are compared.”
Jill P. Morford
Editor’s note: This Women in STEM Award winner profile is part of a series of stories that explores what recipients have been working on since the awards began in 2106.
Dr. Naomi Shin, Dr. Barbara Shaffer, and Dr. Jill P. Morford won a 2017 Women in STEM Award for their proposal “Minority Language Development: How do Children Acquire Grammar When Exposure to Language is Limited?”
The collaborative research aimed to understand how language development unfolds when exposure to a language is limited, as is often the case for children learning minority languages in the United States.
The study focused on the acquisition of demonstratives by English-Spanish bilingual hearing children with limited exposure to Spanish and deaf children with limited exposure to American Sign Language (ASL).
The study identified multiple reasons that Spanish speakers select either the proximal (este/esta ‘this’) or more distal (ese/esa ‘that’) demonstrative in an interactional space.
Physical distance matters: participants produced este/esta to refer to nearby objects, but varied between este/esta and ese/esa when referring to objects further away. In addition, ‘distance’ between speakers played a role: este/esta (this) was used to correct misunderstandings (‘no, this one’) and ese/esa (‘that’) was used to emphasize agreement (‘yes, that one’).
To summarize, results showed that demonstrative selection is not solely determined by physical space, but is influenced by social interaction: speakers metaphorically extend physical distance to distance between speakers’ mental states, such as whether they are attending to the same referents.
“Even though research has shown that bilingualism is beneficial in so many ways, and that multilingualism, not monolingualism, is the norm throughout the world, children in the U.S. who speak a language other than English in the home still face many barriers in our society,” Shin said. “English monolingualism is still regarded as the norm, the benchmark, to which bilinguals are compared.”
Research on children’s acquisition of their home languages is crucial for helping researchers understand language development in multilingual and multicultural communities, which in turn can greatly inform the approach to educating children in these communities, according to Shin.
“Children’s earliest experiences with language have life-long consequences. In prior work I have documented language processing deficits in adults who had restricted access to language in early life, as well as advantages of bilingualism for language processing in adults,” Morford said. “The current project has the potential for a more direct impact on minority language learners’ developmental trajectories by promoting minority language use in the preschool years.”
Shaffer said the project allowed her to return to a very important research topic for her, but also brought challenges like “COVID and the lack of cognitive functional research on the acquisition of lesser studied languages by children.”
Restrictions related to the virus halted the submission of a grant application the researchers were preparing, which included a face-to-face interaction study between researchers and children. This minor setback put a hold on the project, but the group members are now ready to submit the application again during 2021.
Facing the paucity of prior research on less-studied languages like ASL and Navajo was a challenge, as past documentation was non-existent.
“This meant we had to carry out the basic linguistic research on these languages in order to make progress on understanding children’s acquisition of this aspect of ASL and Navajo. And in our research on Spanish, reviewers questioned our results because they were derived from the bilingual population of Spanish-speakers living in New Mexico,” Morford said. “We had to replicate one study by recruiting Spanish-speaking monolinguals from another country to convince reviewers of our claims.”
Nonetheless, Shin, Shaffer, and Morford achieved their objectives and more. They created a child language development lab, supported eleven students’ research experiences, wrote three articles and three book chapters, presented at one Lightning Lounge and eleven conferences, hosted one workshop, and completed an additional study on Albuquerque preschool children in response to a request from community partner YDI New Mexico.
Their research concluded that “physical and social dimensions of demonstrative use are not separate communicative functions of demonstratives, but should instead be conceptualized as components jointly shaping speakers’ construal of the developing co-constructed communicative event as a whole, leading to increasingly variable usage of demonstratives as the referent is more distant both spatially and intersubjectively from the speaker.”
Looking back, the three researchers agree that the most rewarding thing has been working with colleagues and students.
“Collaboration is rewarding in so many ways. Certainly we advance our knowledge more quickly when a problem is approached by means of multiple perspectives,” Shin said. “In addition, the support we give each other is crucial for our own well-being and success in academia.”
Morford said she has “also enjoyed becoming more familiar with Hispanic Linguistics, which is a subfield in linguistics that I didn’t previously work in.”
As they gear up to include children’s acquisition of Navajo language, they will enlist the help of Chee, who is an expert on Navajo linguistics and children’s acquisition of Navajo.
In the future, the group aims to continue their work with children learning minority languages in New Mexico to help understand child language development and develop practical applications for children’s academic success and well-being.
Shin said the publicity from Advance at UNM about the award and the recognition from the community about the importance of the work has been crucial.
Publicity about the award has helped “bring attention to our newly established LOBO Language Acquisition Lab. This is helpful for attracting more students with an interest in child language and for securing future funding for our research,” Shin said.
“The (STEM) Shoutout made its way onto numerous [Facebook] and Twitter feeds, which spread the word about our work to the communities we hope to work with and impact in a way I couldn’t have imagined,” Shaffer said.