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babywearinglenavestWe learn to walk by watching others walk. We learn to talk in a similar manner. When it comes to the opportunities to do the latter, however, the odds are sometimes stacked against us. Specifically, research suggests that children raised in poorer socioeconomic areas are also raised in poorer linguistic environments, and this has implications for their ability to understand, speak and make sense of their world.

 However, we have little or no evidence of this “word gap” in Africa. A new technology, allows us to address this gap by analyzing children’s linguistic environments.

In The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3, Hart and Risley showed that there are marked disparities between the sheer number of words spoken, as well as the types of meanings conveyed, to children in low income as opposed to high income families. After four years, these differences in parent-child interactions produced significant discrepancies not only in children’s language, but also their skills and experiences with children from high-income families being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families with low income. These differences in language and interaction experiences may have lasting effects on a child’s developmental trajectory.

Numerous interventions aimed at improving children’s developmental outcomes – through parental training, for instance – may increase the number of words spoken to a child, and thus potentially contribute to the child’s cognitive development through their effect on parental speech. However, data measuring children’s home linguistic environments has never before been available. As such, we know little about linguistic environments in South Africa.

A technology is available, the Language ENvironment Analysis (LENA) system, for assessing the linguistic environment of young children. How does it work? The LENA device is a small recorder and micro-processer, which looks like a miniature Dictaphone. The device is inserted into specially-made little shirts with pockets on their inner lapel. Each child is provided with the device-fitted shirt for one, or two, days. Each day, as the child plays and interacts with their environment, the full days’ talk is captured by the recorder. At the end of the day, the recording is downloaded onto a software-equipped computer. The recordings are processed, by the software, into data about talk, provided in clear reports for researchers and families to read.

With funding from Innovation Edge, Stellenbosch University is going to pilot the use of LENA in two of our studies.  In these pilot studies, LENA will not be able to “hear” words: rather the device will capture audio units, not actual conversations, thus ensuring the privacy of participants.  A valuable strength of the LENA system is that it is able to distinguish between radio and television, and “near and clear” language sounds, and – within people sounds – between different speakers.  So if the child talks, or if their mother talks, or if another adult in the room talks the system can distinguish these differences.  Finally, LENA is able to tell when conversational turns between the child and an adult are occurring.

 This information has huge potential to assist researchers and implementers in South Africa in understanding the language environments of children, and to establish whether these change over the course of an intervention, and discover whether language exposure and child outcomes are related, and if so, how?

 Supported by Innovation Edge, the LENA system will allow us to provide the first evidence regarding the linguistic environments of children in Southern Africa. We are currently piloting the system in our study on the Benefits of Early Book Sharing (BEBS) funded by the Sexual Violence Research Initiative at the Medical Research Council that is currently underway in Khayelitsha. We will also pilot LENA in the Mphatlalatsane study we are currently implementing in Lesotho funded by USAID.  If successful, the LENA system will play a key role in shaping future projects across sub-Saharan Africa. 

By: Professor Mark Tomlinson, Nicholas Dowdall, Xanthe Hunt and Sarah Skeen - Language Environment Analysis (LENA) System for Southern Africa project