|Karen Miller, PhD|
|Interviewed by Cole Callen|
Could you briefly summarize the research you have been focusing on most recently at Penn State?
In my research I investigate the relationship between the kinds of input children receive—what they hear from their caregivers and others they interact with—and how this input relates to the kinds of language they produce. By comparing what kids hear with what they produce in the short and long term, my goal is to better understand what is happening when kids are acquiring language. I think it’s really important to consider the social context kids are embedded in when they’re acquiring language.
An interesting aspect of adult speech is that it’s highly variable, meaning that adults often say the same thing in different ways, including when talking to kids. I’m particularly interested in when speakers vary between “standard” or prescriptively correct forms and more vernacular forms that might be considered incorrect (e.g., they might use sentences like ‘I didn’t eat anything’ and also ‘I didn’t eat nothing’, in similar contexts). I’m interested in how this kind of variable input impacts how kids acquire language. This line of research has broader relevance for fields like education and speech-language pathology, where it’s important to be able to support young children from under-represented groups whose caregivers may use lots of vernacular forms.
What are some methods you use to study child language acquisition?
In my research I spend a lot of time studying and analyzing conversations between children and their caregivers. I also look at how adults talk to each other in these contexts, to better understand the kinds of things kids might be hearing when they’re listening to adult conversations. In my lab I do different kinds of experiments, including tracking children’s eye movements while they’re listening to speech and looking at pictures, or having them act out or repeat things.
Some people may think that children learn to speak the same as their parents. To what extent is that true?
In the work that I do, I have found that children tend to match the different patterns found in their caregivers’ speech by around 4-5 years of age. This means that kids must be listening very closely and picking up on all sorts of things!
Can you think of any common misconceptions about how children acquire language? What research is there to debunk those assumptions?
I think a common misconception is that it is difficult for children to learn more than one language at a time, or that it is difficult for them to learn to read and write in more than one language at a time. Research with bilingual children from different language backgrounds has shown that, when given the right resources, children can actually learn to do these things quite well.
Finally, could you tell us about your experience as a mother in a bilingual household, particularly through the lens of a researcher concerned with child language acquisition? Are there any scientific facts you consider particularly relevant for bilingual parents to keep in mind?
Studies have indicated that the one-parent, one-language technique, where each parent uses a different language at home, is helpful for raising bilingual children. However, what we do in our house in practice and what the research shows is generally very different. This is because it’s often been challenging for us to monitor our use of language on a day-to-day basis. In our house, we tend to use English in some contexts and Spanish in others. However, both my spouse and I are bilingual in both languages and so we speak both to our children and sometimes we code-switch, using a mixture of both languages in the same context. We also travel to Chile almost every summer. During that time, our kids are using more Spanish (with their family in Chile), and their skills in the language increase quite a bit. We are not strict on which language to use. I find that the use of one language over the other changes depending on where we are, who we are talking with, and what we are talking about.
 Bialystok, E., Luk, G., & Kwan, E. (2005). Bilingualism, biliteracy, and learning to read: Interactions among languages and writing systems. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(1), 43-61.