Nov. 21, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 5

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    Researchers discover environment influences children’s ability to form, comprehend complex sentences

    By William Harms
    News Office

    [Janellen Huttenlocher]
    Janellen Huttenlocher
    University researchers show in a study released Thursday, Nov. 14, that the language environment children experience greatly influences their individual differences in syntax acquisition. This finding challenges a long-standing contention that syntax–the organization of words into sentences–develops uniformly and naturally because of inborn characteristics.

    The researchers found that preschool children benefit when their parents and teachers use complex sentences while speaking with them, because the exposure increases their ability to understand and use complicated sentences. This contradicts a belief held by other scholars of language development that the ability to logically structure sentences is “programmed” into the brain and not subject to other influences.

    The new finding has important implications in preparing children for the elementary grades, when they often are confronted with complex sentences as they work on mathematics and other subjects that require language comprehension. Students in language-rich preschool classrooms experience twice the growth in the ability to use complex sentences when compared with students whose teachers do not often use complex sentences, the study showed.

    In a paper published in the November issue of Cognitive Psychology, Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor in Psychology, and her colleagues detail dramatic differences among 3- and 4-year-olds’ speech and comprehension, depending upon how parents and teachers spoke to them.

    “We found sizable individual differences among children in the proportion of multiclause sentences produced as well as in comprehension,” Huttenlocher wrote in the paper “Language Input and Child Syntax,” co-authored with Marina Vasilyeva and Elina Cymerman, University researchers, and Susan Levine, Professor in Psychology at the University.

    Although the team found that the degree of complexity in children’s language was directly related to that of their parents, this observation does not resolve the question of which is more important, nurture or nature, because the children could be reflecting a genetic advantage passed on by their parents. To address the question, the researchers studied children in preschools to see what impact a teacher’s speech had on their language development.

    The study of parents was based on tape-recorded parent-child interactions. For the study of preschoolers, the team tested 305 children in 40 classrooms in 17 different preschools in the Chicago area. About one third of the schools served high-income families, a third, low-income families, and another third, a mix of families.

    The sentences and drawings above are two examples in a test given to 3- and 4-year-old subjects in a study conducted by Janellen Huttenlocher and her research team. Their study showed that an environment in which children are exposed to more complex language will aid their ability to comprehend more complicated language.
    Researchers tested children on language comprehension at the beginning and end of the school year, and they observed teachers and recorded their speech during the middle of the year. For the tests, children were shown pictures and asked to match the correct picture with a complex sentence such as, “The boy is looking for the girl behind a chair, but she is sitting under the table.”

    In classrooms where pupils were routinely exposed to complex sentences, the pupils’ ability to use and understand more complicated language had greatly improved, Huttenlocher and her team found.

    The study showed the percentage of multiclause sentences used by teachers varied from 11 to 32 percent of their total speech. The preschoolers’ performance in classrooms where teachers more often used complicated language grew at twice the rate of preschoolers’ performance in the less language-rich classrooms. That finding prevailed even when other potential advantages, such as high social economic status, were factored into the study.

    “This means that children from low-income families, whose syntactic level is quite low at the beginning of the year, may grow as much or more than children from high income families,” if the teachers speak in complex sentences, Huttenlocher pointed out.

    Huttenlocher has published extensively on language development and other topics related to learning among young children. Her work has shown, for example, that the amount and variety of words children learn at home directly influence children’s acquisition of vocabulary.

    Other scholars of language development contend that because there are great similarities in the ways in which children use grammar as they begin to speak, the structure of language is programmed into the mind from the beginning.

    “Our findings indicate that the greater the proportion of complex syntactic forms a child hears, the greater will be his or her ability to use these forms,” Huttenlocher said. She noted, however, that biological factors in addition to environmental ones also influence how a child learns.

    Huttenlocher is Co-director of the University’s Center for Early Childhood Research. Her research was supported in part by a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation.