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What the Kids Are Saying These Days

Photography by Timothy Archibald, Illustrations by Giorgia Virgili
Feb 11 2020

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Faculty, In the News
A Stanford scholar helps the world analyze how children acquire language differently—and just how much they have in common.

By Deni Ellis Béchard

MARCH 2020

Mike Frank was keen

to hear his daughter’s first word. In Madeline’s babbling, he’d already discerned those classic baby sounds “ba,” “da” and “ma,” but when she was 10½ months old, she began saying “BAba” each time she saw Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? The book, by Eric Carle, was one of her favorites. At first, Frank doubted that “BAba” constituted a word (the etymological root for “babble” is, after all, the repeated use of “ba” by toddlers), but as he observed Madeline speaking it, he noted its “word-y” qualities: the stress on the first syllable, the descending intonation and a hint of an R after each B. She made the sound only when the book was around, “with the exception of one or two potential false alarms when another book was present,” he wrote in his blog. This was, indeed, language, he decided. Then, three weeks later, she stopped using the word, and he never heard it again.

Frank, ’03, wasn’t just an attentive father describing the nuances of his firstborn’s proto-language with the zeal of a connoisseur; he was also a Stanford psychologist specializing in that earliest of linguistic fermentations: children’s language acquisition. For the past five years, the associate professor has been building Wordbank, an online trove in which he collects the utterances of tykes from 8 to 36 months. So far, he has gathered those of 39,964 females, 40,113 males and 2,900 children whose genders are unidentified. They hail from 29 language groups, including Cantonese, Hebrew, Kigiriama, Norwegian, Turkish, French in Quebec and France, and English in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

While Wordbank has many uses, its primary purpose is to answer a question that has long haunted linguists: How much of language acquisition is innate and therefore the same everywhere on earth, and how much of it is affected by environment? “Early language is our first clue about this process,” Frank says. “The approach we take is directly inspired by this idea of what’s universal across languages and across the process of language learning.”

The challenge in Wordbank—and Frank’s forte—lies in making sense of the sundry infantile proclamations that he has accumulated in the millions. He and his team have spent years building computational tools to create order from hullabaloo, and the first results began coming in around the time that Madeline was making her earliest forays into speech. They revealed that while education and nurturing are, of course, extremely important, in the end, tots and their linguistic tactics are unpredictable.

“There are a lot of differences between kids that can’t be explained by their demographics or their backgrounds,” Frank says. “Kids are really variable, and I find that liberating as a parent—that you can relax a little bit and watch them grow in the direction and at the pace that they want to, knowing that a lot of that variability is out of your control. It’s about the path that they want to take into language.”

The biggest constant, it turns out, may be difference. Rates and styles of language learning vary within social classes, schools—even the same home. In the forthcoming book on Wordbank, Variability and Consistency in Early Language Learning, Frank and three colleagues write, “Although some 18-month-olds already produce 50–75 words, others produce no words at all, and will not do so until they are two years or older.”

Even when there are patterns, such as in the most common first words (among the first 10 words uttered in many languages are “mommy,” “daddy,” “woof woof,” “no,” “bye,” “hi,” “yes,” “vroom,” “ball” and “banana”), babies can also be distinct in how they emerge onto the linguistic stage, as Madeline’s use of “BAba” reminds us. Many of Wordbank’s other findings show similar consistency and variability, such as how firstborns speak compared with their siblings, whether toddlers prefer nouns or verbs, which words are more likely to be spoken by girls or by boys, and how girls master language more rapidly than boys.

Though Wordbank can’t always reveal the reasons children learn in the ways that they do, its data allows researchers to see the patterns in child learning that hold steady across cultures. It also provides them with new avenues for exploration, allowing them to conduct studies with greater precision, searching for potentially larger, subtler or more complex factors that influence language acquisition.

And, like the children whose data it stores, Wordbank is growing, absorbing new data that, along with its code, is open to everyone.