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Early Language Development in the Digital Age

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - e-LADDA (Early Language Development in the Digital Age)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-10-31

Despite the rapid change in the child’s ecology and the rapid advance of technology, research on the impact of digital technologies on children’s communication and language development is still scarce and highly fragmented with no unitary approach across disciplines. The issue of how the ecology of the child affects the acquisition of competencies and skills has been approached from different angles in different disciplines. In linguistics, psychology and neuroscience, the central question addressed concerns the specific role of exposure to language. Research on human-machine interaction is investigating whether using a physical robot vs a virtual agent, a computer-based video or a tablet, has positive effects on language development. Recent studies investigating child-robot interaction have shown that children are willing to interact with robots talking to them as autonomous agents (Tanaka and Matsuzoe, 2012), and can learn word-picture associations (Movellan et al. 2009). Also, the features of the robot, such as accent (Kintzler et al., 2011), familiarity (Corriveau and Harris, 2009) and contingent responsiveness (Nadel et al., 1999), appear to affect the efficiency and quality of such interactions. Research in the field of cognitive sciences showed that joint attention and accompanying gestures are important features for child language development in adult-child interactions (Tomasello, 2006, Esteve-Gilvert et al., 2016), yet these features have not been yet explored in child-robot interaction studies or for any other digital environment. Research is needed where learning from humans and learning from digital tools, including robots, in young children are directly compared. To get a better understanding of the cognitive and behavioural consequences of learning in digital ecologies, research needs to consider both the relevant features of communication agents vis a vis the channels of language transmission. At the same time, training for scientists in language learning has not been in synchrony with changes in technology and media available to learners. Current theories of language learning emphasize the role of language input and the child’s interaction with the environment as crucial to language development. The new digital reality has changed both the nature of the linguistic input provided to young children and affords new ways of interaction with communication agents (tablets, robots). Given this, we need to establish whether new digital technologies also change the way in which language is learned? If so, do digital technologies provide useful tools to enhance/optimize language learning in increasingly multi-cultural educational or therapeutic contexts?

The aim of e-LADDA is 1) to provide a platform for the training of the next generation of scientists drawing for the first time on interdisciplinary perspectives from basic, applied and translational research on language learning in the digital age, 2) to provide a unified research approach to the benefits and drawbacks of digital technologies for young children’s language learning, 3) transform and develop new digital solutions that benefit learners, and 4) to provide guidance to policy makers, educators, practitioners and families in how emerging digital environments should be navigated, regulated and transformed. The ESRs will benefit from interdisciplinary training through substantial mobility during the grant, and direct collaboration across a complementary set of highly-interdisciplinary and cross-sectorial cohort of academic institutions and companies at the frontiers of digital technology and language learning science and technology. Research on digital technologies and human learning is rather new and extremely fragmented, with little crosstalk between researchers from different disciplines. In e-LADDA for the first time we integrate experimental, theoretical, developmental, neuroscientific, cross-linguistic, clinical, educational, technological and information-repository expertise to approach the same topic, with a wide range of applications and practical pay-offs. Our aim is also to facilitate transfer of the skills acquired by the ESR fellows to industry, the public sector and to child development stakeholders, in areas where progress is important for economic and societal benefit.
The central scientific goal of e-LADDA is, therefore, to establish whether the new and quite intuitive interactions afforded by digital tools impact on young children’s language development and language outcomes in a positive or adverse way. We further aim to establish exactly what factors in both the technology itself and the communication channel advance language learning and growth or may impede it. This goal will be pursued from a highly interdisciplinary and cross-sectorial perspective, bridging between research disciplines and methodologies and in collaboration with industry and the non-academic public sector.
The e-LADDA ITN has delivered 4 network-wide training events offering career development opportunities for the early stage researchers in research skills, advanced statistical analyses, technology development skills (robotics, education software, speech technology), translational research, software ethnography and dissemination and communication skills.
The e-LADDA International Conference "Understanding Language and Literacy Development in the Digital Age" (Sept. 28-29, 2021) gathered 90 participants from countries in Europe, the USA and Canada, Israel, Hong Kong, Colombia and Mexico. This was the first international scientific forum addressing the impact of digital technologies on early child development, language learning and literacy.
The early stage researchers are investigating how new technologies impact on language learning in children and what factors play a central role. They are developing a technology-based intervention for word learning in children with autism and an educational app prototype in a collaborative horizontal project.
The ITN has significantly contributed to increased awareness in the research community of the short- and long-term consequences digital technologies may have on early language and cognitive development. The First International Conference on this topic organised by the e-LADDA ITN advanced this process and marked the start of intensive dialogue between researchers working in different domains of child development, education and literacy as evidenced by the large number of abstract submissions and high attendance (ca. 90 participants).
Through active collaboration with technology developers as beneficiaries in the network (SpongeUK; DZC - Latvia) and partners (FURHAT Robotics, SONY), the ITN has created synergies between the non-academic sector and research in academia with successful two-way knowledge exchange.
Research in the individual early stage researcher projects and collaboration in supervision across hosts have led to bridging the gap between disciplines (psycholinguistics, psychology, developmental studies, education, robotics, social anthropology and speech technology) and the creation of innovative and dynamic networks at the European level leading to new project ideas.
First International Conference