Researching Cantonese-English-Mandarin Language Acquisition

More than halfway into my internship, I have been making good progress on my learning goals for the summer at the Childhood Bilingualism Research Centre. In order to monitor my growth and make sure that I am absorbing as much knowledge as possible here, I have been keeping track of my completed tasks and constantly asking the graduate students at the Center for feedback and comments.

At the moment, I am transcribing video recordings for the Hong Kong Bilingual Child Language Corpus. The corpus is a database of bilingual Cantonese-English child speech recordings, in audio and video formats. I use the linguistic software called CLAN to transcribe and mark down specific features that appear in the child’s speech. For example, an important feature to note is code-switching, which is when the child switches from language to another, in this case from Cantonese to English or vice versa. Moreover, we not only transcribe the speech production of the child subject, but just as importantly, the production of the adults who speak to the child, or in other words, the child’s language input. We can achieve a more complete understanding of the target child’s language attainment by examining both her linguistic input and output.

Transcribing target child Yarona’s (mainly) English conversation — click to expand!

Another project I have been working on is the Mandarin Receptive Vocabulary Test for Hong Kong Children. One of my goals for the summer was to conduct experiments that look at children’s acquisition of vocabulary and sentences to better understand how teachers and curriculum can provide more effective language education for children. My responsibility was to compile the results and calculated the scores of each child who took the MRVT. The test is given to children aged 4-6 to assess their acquisition of Mandarin, a second or third language after Cantonese and English for most children in Hong Kong. In the test, children hear a word spoken in Mandarin and are asked to point to the corresponding picture. Only one out of the four pictures is correct and the other options are carefully selected distractors. There is always one other picture that is similar sounding, and one that is similar in meaning. The results tell us how children are most likely to make mistakes, and indicate areas that parents and teachers can improve upon. Working on this project gave me a lot of insight into my long-term goal which is to pursue a career incorporating linguistics into education, so that children can be exposed to various languages at an early age to become global citizens when they grow up. They will be able to communicate with many people, yet also have a native language that reminds them of their heritage.

Sample question in the MRVT: which picture shows xiang1 jiao1?

Concurrently with the other projects, I am currently working to design a computer-based experiment to study the referential strategy of spatial relations. It is extremely challenging and I get a great deal of independence in researching and designing how the experiment will be set up and run. It requires a lot of creative thinking and research. I am learning about the scientific method and research process. Working at CBRC, I have gained skills that will be essential for me in the future. Specifically, I have gained skills in transcription, and am working at a much faster pace than when I first started.

– Miriam Wong ’14

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  1. interesting stuff, Miriam! It sounds fascinating, challenging.

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