How do children use context to influence their conversation?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Language allows us to express our thoughts and ideas to others, but there are often multiple different ways to say the same thing. Depending on the situation, one way of expressing an idea may be considered more appropriate than another – for example, when starting a conversation with someone, you cannot take for granted that the other person will know the same information that you do. We are investigating whether children of varying ages know these conversation rules, the order in which these rules are learned, and why they are learned in this order.

    In this study, children (4 – 6 years old) will hear a number of stories involving 3 characters, Hippo, Fox & Cat, that have different levels of knowledge about what Hippo eats in each story. For example, Hippo may eat an apple with either Fox or Cat, who then must leave to go do something else. When Hippo next speaks to its friend, they are hidden behind something in the scene and the child must use context clues from Hippo to identify which one it is. Hippo may say sentences like:

    1) Guess what? I ate a pear, too!
    2) Guess what? I ate an apple and a pear today!

    Depending on the type of sentence children hear, they may choose characters based on their level of knowledge about the event. For example, children who hear the second sentence above might attribute the sentences to a character that did not witness the earlier events of the story.

    We are interested in exploring whether and how children use others’ knowledge states to influence the kind of language they use in conversation. This research will help us better understand how children’s language skills develop and how they make meaning in conversations with others.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Language Acquisition Lab at MIT

        » Language Acquisition Lab at MIT

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Buzzing Around

    In the Children’s Gallery of the Discovery Center, use the costumes and puppets to pretend to be a bee with your child. Find the “flowers” and “nectar” and hide one of them in the space while your child isn’t looking. Then, encourage your child to go find the flower and bring the nectar back with them! When your child gets back to the hive, ask is s/he can describe where s/he found the flower. What sort of language does s/he use to describe its location? Does your child recognize that you already know the location of the flower?

    Then, ask your child to be the “hider”, and encourage him or her to hide the flower somewhere in the Children’s Gallery while you are not looking. When your child returns, ask where s/he hid the flower. Does s/he use different language to describe the flower’s location when you don’t know where it is?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Fairy Tales

    At home, read a fairy tale story to your child (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood, The Princess and the Frog). In many fairy tales, one of the characters does not know something that another character, or you and your child, does know (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood does not know that a wolf has taken her grandmother’s place in bed). As you read the story and say the character’s dialogue, ask your child if s/he thinks what the character said was silly or not. For example, if Little Red Riding Hood says “My Grandmother, what big eyes you have!” does your child recognize that Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t yet know that it’s a wolf?

    Try acting some of the fairy tales out! What kind of dialogue does your child use? Does s/he form her sentences based off what s/he knows about the story, or what the character knows?

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