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What's the word?

Child speech experts say don't worry if your toddler's language regresses

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The language development of 20-month-old "Annie" is coming along brilliantly. Words are spewing fast and furiously, and not only that, they're coming out correctly. Her parents have even wondered whether they have a genius on their hands.

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But then the about-turn happens, nearly as abruptly as those first words tumbled forth: a return to "baby talk," a disconcerting regression, or so it seems.

The anecdotal scenario has played out time and again in homes of typically developing toddlers and their parents, who have found themselves scratching their heads when language development in their young children seems to rise, only to take a drastic dip.

To parents observing this apparent reversal of language mastery, a local linguistics expert suggests taking a deep breath and not pushing the panic button. In most cases, it's all as it should be.

Erin Conwell, researcher of language acquisition in young children at North Dakota State University, says changes in speech such as this are most often signaling a profound and exciting time in a child's language development.

Conwell, who completed her doctorate work in cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University and post-doctoral research at Harvard, has watched the transformation in others' children as well as her own preschooler.

Her reactions to such changes tend to be atypical - more celebratory than cautionary.

Much like a parent cheering a child's a first step, Conwell called her mother in a burst of excitement the moment she recognized her daughter Blaise's first intentional "misuse" of language.

"She was 22 months and she said, "Daddy tumble monkey on the mat," meaning, 'Make the monkey tumble,'" Conwell recalled. "We would call that a 'causative overgeneralization' or using a verb that typically doesn't have any kind of object and making it a causal verb."

It was an exciting time - a huge step in her daughter's development. "It meant she was opening it up; she was ready to go and was starting to play with language on her own."

Blaise had just moved into a whole new phase of language processing, going from a mere mimicking of the speech patterns she'd been hearing to applying "rules" of language she'd learned by listening to others to form her own word structure.

The resulting verbal expressions, though not following the sometimes illogical rules of the English language, are actually quite logical. Conwell knew exactly what her daughter was saying even if it wasn't grammatically pure.

Another common "misuse" of language at this stage includes overusing the plural. "We say dogs and cats but we don't say mouses, we say mice," Conwell said. "But we say houses, not hice, right? Mouses makes a lot more sense than mice when you get right down to it."

Especially to a toddler who has yet to learn the exceptions to the rule.

Overuse of past tense also occurs frequently at this phase, such as in the made-up words of toddlers like "goed," "falled" and "runned."

"I heard one the other day - 'beed' instead of were or was," Conwell said. "What's interesting, though, is that this will disappear in time. Typically developing children do find (their way to the word) mice, and they eventually learn it's knew and not knowed."

The exceptions to the rule, by and large, have to be learned one at a time, she said. "There's no rule you can learn that tells you that mouse is irregular and has to become mice. You just learn it by case."

Some children will produce overgeneralizations, especially on rare words, into kindergarten and first grade, she said, while occasionally, such words show up as late as age 10 for more uncommon words. "They don't have the experience to know that they are irregulars in the first place."

The process that brings children back to regular verbs rather than overgeneralization is "a big open mystery," Conwell said.

TRAILING THE MYSTERY

As one invested in breaking open the big mystery, Conwell spends many hours in her NDSU lab - a temporary location at the Technology Incubator off 19th Avenue North. There, she goes deep into her studies with the help of her assistants and local children, whose parents volunteer their time to the cause.

Most of their visits take place inside what is, essentially, a large metal box with a door and walls made of soundproof foam. The interior is fairly simple - a small table and chairs, along with a laptop computer and several research tools.

The most obtrusive is a wooden "stage" encompassing four shelves with a hole cut in the middle for a video camera to peek out, along with various objects or toys on the shelves.

The camera tracks a subject's responses to verbal instructions, specifically facial reactions. "People tend to make anticipatory looks, which tells us what predictions they're making about how sentences are going to end, which tells us how they're processing them," Conwell explained. "Made-up words also tell us a lot about what kids understand about language."

Warren Christensen's 4-year-old son, Owen, is among the children who have been inside the laboratory as a participant in the study. One of the instructions Owen likely received was, "Put the cow on the couch."

Conwell would have been interested in where his eyes went as she said the words, because it would provide information about how he was processing those particular words.

As a parent of two, Christensen said he's been fascinated by his children's developing speech patterns, and as a fellow scientist, he'd already done some of his own reading about learning and knowledge acquisition before becoming familiar with Conwell's work.

"It's interesting to see how kids acquire knowledge and learn stuff from zero. Seeing how they communicate and what words they choose is fascinating," he said.

Language development seems to be something that intrigues more than just those trained in linguistics.

"When I talk about this and give these examples, I'll start getting lots of emails and Facebook messages from people wanting to share what their kids have said," Conwell said. "Once you know what it is, all of a sudden you start hearing more and more of the examples yourself."

The knowledge also helps parents realize this stage is normal, not a deficiency.

Conwell said the current project attempts to zero in on how children become productive users of their language. "How do they make the shift from being listeners and maybe mimics to ... taking the language and using it on their own terms, to begin processing it more like adults do?"

ORIGINS OF HER OWN INTEREST

It's the kind of question Conwell has been asking ever since high school, when she volunteered at a therapeutic preschool center for children with developmental disabilities.

"I spent a lot of time with the speech pathologist who had all of these wonderful techniques for unlocking children who were not speaking on time or who had various delays," she said. "I'd taken for granted how fast and easily language appears to come to typically developing children."

What she's learned since then is that children who are spoken to more tend to have larger vocabularies as adults. At the same time, even in cultures where children aren't typically spoken to all that much, they eventually catch up with their peers, indicating that while environment is a factor, there seems to be a strong biological component as well.

In addition, it's been found that when parents correct their children's language, it doesn't do much to hasten language development. "But it's hard not to do it," Conwell said. "I have a 3-year-old and I find myself correcting her, even though as I'm doing it I know it's a waste of time. But there's sort of a knee-jerk reaction."

And certainly, there's no reason to quit talking to your children and asking them to elaborate on what they are thinking. "That, at the very least, improves conversational skills, not necessarily grammar, but the ability to take turns in conversation."

Finally, it's important to remember that every child develops in the area of language at a different pace. Conwell said there was a worrisome period when Blaise spoke only 12 words. But about a week after the worrying started, 300 words poured out of her mouth. "Some kids just wait until they can do it, to start talking."

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