Studying children’s speech patterns


Elizabeth Johnson, associate professor in the department of psychology, is the third of four CRCs to be named last year. Johnson specializes in working with infants to study their speech perception and language acquisition. Her main areas of focus are how infants from the ages of 6–18 months pick up language and perceive speech signals, including word recognition and understanding.

This week, Johnson sat down with the Medium to further discuss her research and why the study of child speech fascinates her.

TheMedium: How long have you been working on this particular area of research?

Elizabeth Johnson: That’s going to tell you how old I am. [Laughs] I guess it has been almost 18 to 20 years.

TM: How far has it come since you’ve started?

EJ: My focus has always been similar. I’m really interested in how children learn language so quickly and how their environment influences the way they learn language. I’ve always been really interested in the physical speech signal and how children can master language so quickly. So from the very beginning I started off with some hypotheses and proved myself wrong again and again and again and moved forward—except you sort of move in circles sometimes with science and find yourself going back to the same questions again and again. Which I suppose means they’re good questions.

But I’d like to think I’ve come a long way. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot about how children acquire language and how the environment influences the way they learn language. But in the grand scheme of things, science is slow.

TM: What has been your biggest breakthrough since you’ve started?

EJ: That’s a good question. I don’t know what my biggest breakthrough has been. I can tell you [that] some of my favourite studies have been [about] how children cope with accents, for example. So when I moved to Toronto, I had to change my research program quite a bit because the population here is much more multicultural than I was used to. So as opposed to doing research in, say, Rochester or an area of the Netherlands, I was doing research where there was a very uniform population. Here, you have people all over the world with all sorts of different language backgrounds. So I’m really excited right now about some recent work I’ve done in collaboration with my former PhD student. We’re looking at how children adapt to new accents—how they can cope with someone who speaks in a way that they’ve never heard before.

Another area I really like is looking at statistical learning, mechanisms, and how much information children can pull out from the environment. And not just to show that they can pull out a lot—because we know they can pull out a lot—but to understand how they’re limited in some ways in the sorts of statistics that they’ll pull out. And those very limitations can actually help children possibly learn language faster, because if you could pull out every statistic, then you’d be overwhelmed with information. But if you can limit the information that you’re pulling in, that could be part of an explanation for how children learn language so quickly. So that’s another area I’m really excited about that I’ve been working on for ages.

TM: What else is being improved on in your research?

EJ: Well, I am interested in looking at what causes children to move from one stage to the next, and what can actually predict how well they will do in moving from one state to the next in terms of their language and speech-processing abilities. For example, we’ve started doing some longitudinal work. So we might test a child at five to six months of age and bring them back at 15 months and bring them back at 24 months. In the past, we’ve done a lot of purely cross-sectional work, where we just see children at one age. And then we compare age groups that are completely different groups of children, and now we’re getting interested in following children to see how their language develops over time and how changes in their environment can influence that development.

TM: What’s next for you?

EJ: Children are easier before they start talking. [Laughs] Personally, my favourite age group to work with is infants. I find the six-to 12-month age range absolutely fascinating. I also find the two to three age group absolutely fascinating. I am so busy working on that age group that if I were to broaden much more, it would almost be too much. So at this point, I think I’m going to stick with the younger children because that’s what I’m really passionate about—that’s when changes are happening so quickly. I think I’ll stay with that age group.

TM: How does it feel to be named CRC? Was it something you were working towards?

EJ: [Laughs] No, I definitely wasn’t working towards it. I was completely floored when I found out about it. I was off the radar, not expecting it, and when my chair called and said, ‘Hey, guess what?’ I thought, ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right Elizabeth?’

I was pretty happy, very honoured. And really, in this business, you get a lot of negative feedback as an academic, and the CRC being put forth by my department and actually being awarded the CRC was a nice little pat on the back. We have our jobs, we love our jobs, we’re sort of obsessed with our jobs […] but we do get a lot of negative feedback, and a little pat on the back like this—or a big pat on the back—it feels great and I’m really quite happy.

Elizabeth Johnson has been researching speech patterns in children for the past 18 years.
Elizabeth Johnson has been researching speech patterns in children for the past 18 years.