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Children’s first words: which factors for which dynamics?


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Florence CHENU , Christophe DOS SANTOS , Gabriella FEKETE , Ludivine GLAS , Sophie KERN , Daniela VALENTE

Scientific framework and objectives

Learning vocabulary is essential in the acquisition of a language: without words there is no language. But vocabulary learning is a complex process we still don’t know everything about it. This state is particularly true for typical developing children but also for populations at risk of presenting later language difficulties. The objectives of the work carried out in this action are twofold:

  • Describe the stages of language development in children under 4 years of age with a focus on the quantitative and qualitative development of productive and receptive vocabulary between 12 and 42 months of age; and even more particularly on the order of acquisition of words and the level of accuracy of words production.
  • Establish an explanatory model of lexical acquisition by simultaneously measuring the effect of biomechanical and cognitive constraints on the one hand and the effect of the characteristics of the linguistic and cultural environment on the other hand.

As part of this action, two main projects are in progress :
  1. The quantitative and qualitative development of first words in young children.
  2. Characteristics of child directed speech according to the situation and the languages.
Read more...

1. The quantitative and qualitative development of first words in young children.

The productive vocabulary of young children is quantitatively and qualitatively very different from the vocabulary mastered by adults (Fenson et al., 1993). Between 1 and 3 years old, the children's vocabulary is limited and the first words can be quite different from the adult target: phonologically, semantically and / or grammatically different. In addition, some words are acquired before and / or are produced more accurately than others. Several factors have been considered as explanatory factors for the characteristics of the first vocabularies of children (Bornstein et al., 2004): articulatory development related to the biomechanical development of the child, conceptual development related to cognitive development but also input, that is, the quantity and nature of the linguistic data in which the child grows up. This project aims at studying lexical acquisition, and more specifically the order of word acquisition and production accuracy in a translinguistic, longitudinal and holistic perspective. The goals are describing and modeling the process of vocabulary development in children by taking into account factors of different nature: the factors related to the articulatory capacities of the child (articulatory complexity), to his/her cognitive capacities (categorization and memory) and to the input characteristics (frequency, neighborhood density, syntactic context, situational context). These factors play a more or less important role in the development of the lexicon of the child according to his/her age. Although the development of French will always be used as a point of reference in the work carried out, a cross-linguistic perspective will also be adopted in order to take into account in our model structural and functional differences that exist within languages and their use. The analyses will be based on adult-child interactions and parental reports in monolingual (French, English, Tunisian, Tachelhit) or bilingual (French / Portuguese, current thesis Daniela Valente) contexts. Some of the corpora were collected under the ANR PREMS 2012-2015.

2.Characteristics of child directed speech according to the situation and the languages.

Nowadays, several studies clearly suggest that the context of interactions has an important role on the use of specific forms used by the adult in child directed speech as well as by the child him/herself. However, only few studies consider the type of activity in progress as a factor in its own right. Even fewer studies try to measure the combined effect of activity type and language typological characteristics on the adult and children’s productions. The objective of the work carried out here is to measure the effect of current activities and language on the interactive and linguistic behaviors of adults and children (see Ludivine Glas's current PhD). Two contexts of interactions are considered: parent-child interactions in the children’s homes and adult-child interactions in nursery schools (Projet Stimulanc). The activities carried out during these interactions also differ: there are informal interactions, meals, picture book reading, or playing with toys). Parent / child interactions were filmed in French-speaking families in France and in Turkish-speaking families in Turkey.


  Financial support
  • ANR Programme Blanc SHS 2
    PREMS : Influence of phonological development and input on first words
    Agence Nationale de la Recherche
    2012-2015
  • Labex ASLAN
    STIMULAN: Stimulating language in day nurseries
    Labex ASLAN - Université de Lyon
    2017-2019

  Publications
  • Alkimanis, F., Kern, S., Sofu, H., 2014, "When context matters more than language: Verb or noun in French and Turkish caregiver speech", First Language, 34:6, pp. 537-550
  • Kern, S., dos Santos, C., 2018, "Invariance in variation: frequency and neighbourhood density as explanatory factors ", Trends in Language Acquisition Research, 22, pp. 183-200
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