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How adults understand what kids are saying

It's not easy to parse young children's words, but adults' beliefs about what
children want to communicate helps make it possible

          October 26, 2023

          Massachusetts Institute of Technology

          Adult listening abilities are critical to the ability to
          understand children's early linguistic efforts, according to new

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   When babies first begin to talk, their vocabulary is very limited.
   Often one of the first sounds they generate is "da," which may refer to
   dad, a dog, a dot, or nothing at all.

   How does an adult listener make sense of this limited verbal
   repertoire? A new study from MIT and Harvard University researchers has
   found that adults' understanding of conversational context and
   knowledge of mispronunciations that children commonly make are critical
   to the ability to understand children's early linguistic efforts.

   Using thousands of hours of transcribed audio recordings of children
   and adults interacting, the research team created computational models
   that let them start to reverse engineer how adults interpret what small
   children are saying. Models based on only the actual sounds children
   produced in their speech did a relatively poor job predicting what
   adults thought children said. The most successful models made their
   predictions based on large swaths of preceding conversations that
   provided context for what the children were saying. The models also
   performed better when they were retrained on large datasets of adults
   and children interacting.

   The findings suggest that adults are highly skilled at making these
   context-based interpretations, which may provide crucial feedback that
   helps babies acquire language, the researchers say.

   "An adult with lots of listening experience is bringing to bear
   extremely sophisticated mechanisms of language understanding, and that
   is clearly what underlies the ability to understand what young children
   say," says Roger Levy, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at
   MIT. "At this point, we don't have direct evidence that those
   mechanisms are directly facilitating the bootstrapping of language
   acquisition in young children, but I think it's plausible to
   hypothesize that they are making the bootstrapping more effective and
   smoothing the path to successful language acquisition by children."

   Levy and Elika Bergelson, an associate professor of psychology at
   Harvard, are the senior authors of the study, which appears today in
   Nature Human Behavior. MIT postdoc Stephan Meylan is the lead author of
   the paper.

   Adult listening skills are critical

   While many studies have investigated how children learn to speak, in
   this project, the researchers wanted to flip the question and study how
   adults interpret what children say.

   "While people have looked historically at a number of features of the
   learner, and what is it about the child that allows them to learn
   things from the world, very little has been done to look at how they
   are understood and how that might influence the process of language
   acquisition," Meylan says.

   Previous research has shown that when adults speak to each other, they
   use their beliefs about how other people are likely to talk, and what
   they're likely to talk about, to help them understand what their
   conversational partner is saying. This strategy, known as "noisy
   channel listening," makes it easier for adults to handle the complex
   task of deciphering the acoustic sounds they're hearing, especially in
   environments where voices are muffled or there is a lot of background
   noise, or when speakers have different accents.

   In this study, the researchers explored whether adults can also apply
   this technique to parsing the often seemingly nonsensical utterances
   produced by children who are learning to talk.

   "This problem of interpreting what we hear is even harder for child
   language than ordinary adult language understanding, which is actually
   not that easy either, even though we're very good at it," Levy says.

   For this study, the researchers made use of datasets originally
   generated at Brown University in the early 2000s, which contain
   hundreds of hours of transcribed conversations between children ages 1
   to 3 and their caregivers. The data include both phonetic
   transcriptions of the sounds produced by the children and the text of
   what the transcriber believed the child was trying to say.

   The researchers used other datasets of child language (which included
   about 18 million spoken words) to train computational language models
   to predict what words the children were saying in the original dataset,
   based on the phonetic transcription. Using neural networks, they
   created many different models, which varied in the sophistication of
   their knowledge of conversational topics, grammar, and children's
   mispronunciations. They also manipulated how much of the conversational
   context each model was allowed to analyze before making its predictions
   of what the children said. Some models took into account just one or
   two words spoken before the target word, while others were allowed to
   analyze up to 20 previous utterances in the exchange.

   The researchers found that using the acoustics of what the child said
   alone did not lead to models that were particularly accurate at
   predicting what adults thought children said. The models that did best
   used very rich representations of conversational topics, grammar, and
   beliefs about what words children are likely to say (ball, dog or baby,
   rather than mortgage, for example). And much like humans, the models'
   predictions improved as they were allowed to consider larger chunks of
   previous exchanges for context.

   A feedback system

   The findings suggest that when listening to children, adults base their
   interpretation of what a child is saying on previous exchanges that
   they have had. For example, if a dog had been mentioned earlier in the
   conversation, "da" was more likely to be interpreted by an adult
   listener as "dog."

   This is an example of a strategy that humans often use in listening to
   other adults, which is to base their interpretation on "priors," or
   expectations based on prior experience. The findings also suggest that
   when listening to children, adult listeners incorporate expectations of
   how children commonly mispronounce words, such as "weed" for "read."

   The researchers now plan to explore how adults' listening skills, and
   their subsequent responses to children, may help to facilitate
   children's ability to learn language.

   "Most people prefer to talk to others, and I think babies are no
   exception to this, especially if there are things that they might want,
   either in a tangible way, like milk or to be picked up, but also in an
   intangible way in terms of just the spotlight of social attention,"
   Bergelson says. "It's a feedback system that might push the kid, with
   their burgeoning social skills and cognitive skills and everything
   else, to continue down this path of trying to interact and

   One way the researchers hope to study this interplay between child and
   adult is by combining computational models of how children learn
   language with the new model of how adults respond to what children say.

   "We now have this model of an adult listener that we can plug into
   models of child learners, and then those learners can leverage the
   feedback provided by the adult model," Meylan says. "The next frontier
   is trying to understand how kids are taking the feedback that they get
   from these adults and build a model of what these children expect that
   an adult would understand."

   The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the
   National Institutes of Health, and a CONVO grant to MIT's Department of
   Brain and Cognitive Sciences from the Simons Center for the Social
          + Mind & Brain
               o Child Development
               o Child Psychology
               o Language Acquisition
               o Literacy
               o Learning Disorders
               o ADD and ADHD
               o Parenting
               o Mental Health

          + Early childhood education
          + Psycholinguistics
          + Hallucination
          + Theory of cognitive development
          + Intellectual giftedness
          + Child prodigy
          + Child abuse
          + Psychology

   Story Source:

   Materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Original
   written by Anne Trafton. Note: Content may be edited for style and

   Journal Reference:
    1. Stephan C. Meylan, Ruthe Foushee, Nicole H. Wong, Elika Bergelson,
       Roger P. Levy. How adults understand what young children say.
       Nature Human Behaviour, 2023; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-023-01698-3

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   Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "How adults understand what kids
   are saying." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 October 2023.
   Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2023, October 26). How adults
   understand what kids are saying. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 27,
   2023 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/10/231026131435.htm
   Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "How adults understand what kids
   are saying." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/10/
   231026131435.htm (accessed October 27, 2023).
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