New light has been shed on the way children learn to speak — contradicting what researchers previously believed — that could lead to advances in how speech-related disabilities are treated.
Children around the age of two may learn to speak by using social cues and having a parent or other caregiver repeat words back to them, according to a new study by University of Denmark researcher Dr. Ewan MacDonald, along with researchers at the Universities of Toronto and Queen's.
Previously, it was thought that children listened to their own voices to figure out if they were speaking correctly. MacDonald said the results were surprising, but the exact learning method hasn't yet been pinpointed for children younger than two years old.
The experiment was conducted by first getting adults to say a word — in this case "bed" — which was then simultaneously altered and played over headphones to the subject to sound like they were actually saying "bad."
Adults, when they participated, took the feedback from the headphones to adjust their speech and would try again to say bed, but pronounce it closer to "bid" to compensate for the researchers' playback.
The surprising results came when toddlers participated and didn't adjust the way they spoke the word.
MacDonald said this suggests the children aren't using the feedback from their own voice to learn how to speak.
He said the results point to one of two possible conclusions: that children only sometimes listen to their voices — listening when they are practicing their speech and looking for social cues when they are performing — or they rely on social cues from a caretaker to get feedback on how their speech is progressing.
The second option — social cues — is what excites MacDonald.
"They may be using the feedback from the person that they are talking to," MacDonald said. "They may be looking at the person and the social interaction of the person that they are talking to and using that to judge the accuracy of their productions."
MacDonald said that when talking to a parent, positive responses, such as smiling, or repeating words with corrections to pronunciation could be how two-year-old children learn to speak.
"By looking at how the person is responding, they can use that to judge whether they are producing (the word) correctly," he said.
The researcher — who recently moved to the University of Denmark from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. — said the study findings are the first step to figuring out how people learn to speak.
He said this could lead to developing strategies to assist children with abnormal or delayed speech development.
MacDonald said it is too early in the research to give specific advice to parents with young kids, but the study's results do point a general way forward.
"I think the important message is to just communicate with the child," he said. "It's not just they must correct everything, it's more just everyday communication could actually be important."
Another upside to the results is the possibility that children learn how to speak in much the same way songbirds learn to sing. Studies have shown that some birds learn through similar social cues.