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New grant to understand the impact of reduced access to language on conceptual development

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

One child in 1000 is born with a permanent bilateral hearing loss, and the vast majority (95%) of these children are born to hearing parents. Many hearing parents use a spoken language such as English as their primary language which is at least partially inaccessible to their deaf child. This is in contrast to deaf parents of deaf children, who use a fully accessible visual language (i.e., signed language such as British Sign Language) and to hearing parents of hearing children, who use a fully accessible spoken language. Therefore, compared to hearing infants with hearing parents or deaf infants with deaf parents, many deaf infants born to hearing parents will experience reduced access to the main language used by their family. Many of these families will chose for their children to undergo cochlear implantation; however, despite a decrease in the age of implantation and an improvement in the acoustics of the implants, many of these children will enter school with less developed language and learning outcomes compared to their hearing peers.

A new collaborative Economic and Social Research Council-funded project aims to understand the large variation in communicative development and school readiness of deaf children born to hearing parents. This four-year grant will work with a new cohort of deaf infants born to hearing families (DoH) to develop new methods that can track the impact that reduced access to language may have on cognitive development over the first 2 year of life.

This is a collaborative project led by Dr Teodora Gliga from the School of Psychology at UEA, working alongside Dr Nadja Althaus, also School of Psychology at UEA, Dr Evelyne Mercure, from the School of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London and Dr Marie Smith, from Birkbeck College, University of London.

The investigation will have a particular focus on quantifying the early development of category learning and conceptual knowledge. Being able to parse the world into categories such as “cars”, “animals” or “food” is a key building block for cognitive development as it helps us generalize new knowledge (e.g. we expect a newly encountered car to also have an engine) and better keep information in memory (e.g. we can remember there were 5 cars in the street, without the need to memorise each one individually). One way in which children discover categories is by learning that they share a common label (e.g. two different looking dogs being called “dog”). This is exactly the type of information that deaf children whose parents mainly use spoken language may be missing out on some of the time. This research project will ask the question of how the reduced access to labelling impacts on category knowledge in deaf children in hearing families. The research will also ask whether hearing parents of deaf children find alternative ways of communicating about categories with their children. The team hope to build on these findings to improve early support for DoH children and their families.

One important aspect of the project will be to characterize the impact that using sign language has on early learning. Some hearing parents of deaf children learn sign language, but it may take time for them to reach the fluency required for conversation. Yet, even signing with lower proficiency, if adapted to a child’s communicative needs, may support the learning of categories and this may explain why DoH children that have some sign language exposure tend to fare better academically.

The first stage of the project will involve using neuroimaging methods such as electroencephalography and eye tracking to determine how pre-verbal children’s brains respond to images of familiar or unfamiliar categories and identify markers of category knowledge. Once these measurements have been identified the researchers will be able to quantify how many categories deaf and hearing children know.

To capture category learning as it occurs in the real world, which is cluttered and noisy, unlike a quiet research lab, where babies are usually shown individual pictures on a screen, the team has partnered with The Norwich Castle Museum Early Education team. Children will be learning as they move around the immersive galleries of the museum. Dr Helen Lunnon, Learning Manager at Norwich Museums hopes that “the proposed study will help us to better understand how and when to use language in programmes specifically designed for Early Years children” as well as possibly “create new forms of display, exhibition and interpretation which can effectively convey the meaning of an object with less reliance on language acquisition and comprehension.“


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