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Member Spotlight: Nan Xu Rattanasone

Dr Nan Xu Rattanasone

From our earliest days, we begin to tune into the sounds that make up our native language. Over time, we learn to understand and produce the correct sounds to create words and grammatically correct sentences.

But how do we go from simply hearing sounds to understanding the full complexity of language? What if we start with one language but live in a society that speaks another? What if we're hearing impaired as a child?

These are some of the questions that CCD researcher Dr Nan Xu Rattanasone and her colleagues are tackling with their research. Their approach is to study both monolingual and bilingual pre-school age children. This allows the team to get to the heart of how and when children learn to speak English correctly as their first or second language.

Dr Nan explains the importance of studying language learning, particularly in bilinguals. As she says, “The original models of language acquisition were developed based on English speaking monolinguals. But we now know that bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one brain. It's an integrative cognitive system that they have and the two languages are well-integrated.” With one in five Australians speaking a language other than English at home, the importance of developing and testing new models for bilingual speakers is clear.

Testing enough children from different language backgrounds is one of the challenges to building an inclusive model. With traditional tests, children need to come into a lab to be tested with expensive eye-tracking equipment. These tests also need to be administered and interpreted by an expert. To get around these limitation, Nan and her PhD student Ben Davies collaborated with their team to devise an iPad app that would allow large numbers of children to be evaluated very quickly away from the lab by non-experts. The 'game' uses real animals and objects as well as fictional beings (cute little creatures called things like 'nugs' and 'nibs') to test at what age children understand plurals. The kids listen to the English words and then tap what they think is the right answer (the picture of one character for singular or several characters for plurals). With the success of this app, the team are planning to develop other iPad tools to help teachers identify areas in need of support in English and to track language development in their students.

One reason Nan and her team focus on children's understanding and usage of plurals and verb-tense agreement is because not all languages have the same structure. For example, Mandarin and Cantonese do not add an ‘s’ or ‘es’ to make a word plural. Instead they may add a numeral, a classifier, and then the noun (for example to say ‘three cats’ in Mandarin would be ‘Sān zhī māo’ (三只猫), which is ‘three (classifier) cat’. The word cat, māo, (猫) remains the same regardless of the number). The Chinese languages do not have tenses either (jumps/jumping/jumped); they use words which convey information about time to indicate tense.

Previous research suggests that learning plural word forms and verb tenses may be more challenging for Chinese-speaking children than for English-only speaking children. The reasons for these potential differences are still unclear so Nan and her colleagues have conducted a series of research to uncover the causes. The outcomes of this work have the potential to inform how English is taught in schools to bilingual children.

Nan's team are also investigating language learning in hearing-impaired children. Like bilingual children, there's tremendous variation in when they first have exposure to the language. Working with audiologists, Nan and her PhD student Ben Davies are planning to study how language develops over time in hearing-impaired children. As Nan says, “Just having good access to sound may not be enough for appropriate language development. We need to understand how the sounds are processed and how timing of exposure to speech changes language acquisition.”

With more than 12,000 children in Australia having significant hearing impairment, this type of research has the potential to change lives for the better.

For those interested in learning more about Nan's work and in hearing from other experts in the field, please come to the Current Issues in Child Bilingual Development Workshop. Hosted by the CCD, the Child Language Lab, and Macquarie University Centre for Language Sciences, this workshop brings together national and international researchers to discuss current issues in bilingual and multilingual language learning. The workshop runs from 26-27 July 2018 at the Macquarie University Australian Hearing Hub in Sydney, Australia. Registration is free. http://www.ccd.edu.au/events/conferences/2018/bilingualdevelopment/index.php

To keep up-to-date on the latest language acquisition research, follow the Child Language Lab on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CLLMQ/

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Telephone: +61 2 9850 4127
Email : ccd@mq.edu.au
Web : www.ccd.edu.au

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