Where Did They Learn to Say That?

Language is an important indicator of early childhood development. A Canadian-designed questionnaire is providing some critical insights.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

From the time parents find out that they are expecting they begin to worry about how their child is developing. They obsess over metrics, percentiles and even anecdotes to determine whether their child’s development is on track or, even better, whether they will be ahead of the pack.

While some things are easy to quantify, like height and weight, others are more difficult to gauge. Daniela O’Neill, Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, studies language development and early thinking in children 1-5 years of age. She examines not only whether children know different words but how they put them together and how this is affected by their knowledge about themselves and their knowledge about others. Because there is so much variability in children’s language, by better understanding how language develops, we can better assess whether something may not be going as it should.

O’Neill’s research is already having a real world impact. Using what she has learned about early language development, she developed the Language Use Inventory (LUI), a questionnaire to assess language development in children 18 to 47 months of age. The results are presented in percentile form which indicate how a child’s performance compares with that of other children in the same age group and is powerful enough to distinguish when a child is falling outside of a normal range of variability. A really important question for anyone who deals with children’s language development is when to worry and the LUI helps to address it.

O’Neill’s research has also begun to help us understand the long-term impact of a delay in language. Because language is really a culmination of many different kinds of knowledge, such as social knowledge, cognitive knowledge, and knowledge of others, when something is not developing as it should, it really can impact all areas of life.

The LUI is now available online and is used worldwide by speech and language professionals.

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Daniela O’Neill (BSc, University of Toronto; Ph.D. Stanford University) is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Waterloo where she is founder and director of the Centre for Child Studies since 1995. Her major research interests include children’s early pragmatic language development and its assessment during the toddler and preschool years, early parent-child conversation, and children’s understanding and production of stories. She is the author of the Language Use Inventory (LUI), a standardized parent-report assessment of children’s early pragmatic language development. Her research has been funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a Premier’s Research Excellence Award.

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