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Is Children’s Language Learning Falling Victim to the Pandemic?

Researchers Seek Recordings of Conversations to Determine Effect of Social Distancing, School Closings

By Sara Gavin

Drawing of a family wearing masks

Photo by iStock

Researchers from the University of Maryland and Boston College are enrolling “citizen scientists” in a nationwide study to understand how online classes, canceled playdates and parents juggling work and schooling responsibilities due to COVID-19 are changing children’s language learning environments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made daily life for many families unrecognizable, and now researchers from the University of Maryland and Boston College are enrolling “citizen scientists” in a nationwide study to understand how online classes, canceled playdates and parents juggling work and schooling responsibilities are changing children’s language learning environments.  

A National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant is funding the study, which aims to include children in all 50 states and span all social and economic backgrounds. It will be conducted by Yi Ting Huang, associate professor of hearing and speech sciences at UMD, and Joshua Hartshorne, assistant professor of psychology at BC. 

“Families are facing enormous stress right now, and this changes how we interact with each other,” Huang said. “If we understand the different ways in which this crisis is impacting families more precisely, we can develop better ways to support parents and children.”

With their labs shuttered, the two researchers realized they had to develop creative ways to reach families. Through a new website and mobile phone application launched yesterday, Huang and Hartshorne are asking parents with children aged 1 to 8 to collaborate in the research. This includes making short audio recordings of interactions with their children—a “digital language scrapbook” of sorts—as well as completing short, routine surveys about their families.

It’s the first web-based platform for collecting language samples from families, which are usually conducted through specialized equipment in labs or homes, Huang said. 

“Leveraging mobile phone technology to enable parents to collect speech samples from their own children will not only increase the amount of data we’ll have on child development, but also allows us to reach broad and diverse populations that are hard to reach with in-lab research.”

Over the coming months, the researchers aim to collect data from hundreds of thousands of families from all walks of life and from all over America, and to eventually build a database representing 6 million families. 

Participating families choose the level at which they would like to be engaged, from a few minutes to a few hours each week. Families can also decide how much of their recordings, transcripts and survey responses they want to share with researchers, and have the option to share their scrapbook with friends and family members as well. 

“A lot of parents are concerned that being away from school and peers will negatively affect their kids’ development,” Hartshorne said. “But the truth is, we don’t know. The effect could be small. It could be huge. There could be none at all. The only way we can find out is to measure.” 

Their findings will help policymakers mitigate the negative impacts of social distancing, school closings and other actions taken to contain the novel coronavirus. The long-term impact of the work goes beyond the present pandemic, the researchers said. 

“COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century event, but the next century is coming,” Hartshorne said. “Regional crises like natural disasters and wars cause similar social and economic disruptions. The more we understand how this affects children, the better we can plan.”

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