The documentary Babies is phenomenal. For one reason or another, we tend to think of development within a narrow scope. When we think of how children learn new words, we may say that they learn through books or television. What makes us think, though, that every child has access to these luxuries? The film highlights the stages of growth in each of these children’s lives- from their birth to crawling, babbling, and beyond. The way a child learns to speak in Namibian tribe, where there is no such thing as literature, is much different then a child learning in Tokyo, Japan. When engaging children in studies it’s important to realize and be sensitive to these differences, as they will greatly affect the way they learn.

I tried to think up a simple study that would analyze children’s learning and utilization patterns across cultures and assess if and where lie the differences in methodologies used in both groups. So in a hypothetical experiment here is how I would proceed:

  • Objective
    • The current study will aim to see if 18-month old infants who are taught a word for a tangible object in another language will identify the object in a setting-specific picture in their native language or in the language that they learned. The goal is to see whether children would identify an object in a picture based on the characters and setting in the picture.
  • Participants
    • Participants will include 30 American and 30 Japanese 18-month old infants.
  • Methods and Design
    • This will be a longitudinal study done over a number of months to allow the children acquisition of the new word. We won’t strive for total perfection, since they are quite young for that, but can gather the basic phonemes they’re putting together, we can count this a successful identification.
    • Learning the new word
      • This may require not only learning the new word, but also training the child in that language “What is this?” If the child hears the question in their own language, there may be a bias to answer accordingly. The person asking and teaching the child would be a native speaker of the language the child is trying to acquire. This would accustom the child to the kind of person that speaks this given language.
      • The child would then be shown a picture  that correlates with the language they just learned. This may mean that an American infant is shown a video or book that is set in Japan and reflects Japanese culture.
      • An experimenter will point to that given object that was taught and ask “What is this?” in the target language. Will the child ignore the question in that language? Will the child even understand it? Will they proceed to answer in English? Will they actually answer in Japanese given the setting and language of the prompt?

American and Japanese children were chosen under the basic assumption that the sample would be collected from urban cities where there is access to media (such as literature and television). Because these two cultures have those availabilities in common, the children may be assessed under the assumption that they have the same capabilities in understanding real life portrayal in medium. Based on the film, American and Japanese cultures seem to have similarities in the ways babies are raised and the ways in which they learn. For this reason, methodologies will remain the same across subjects.

When I thought of the idea for the study, it seemed much simpler. There are obvious flaws with this outline, but this is more or less something I’m interested in observing in infants- cross cultural sensitivity, I suppose you can call it. It is particularly interesting for me because at 23 years old, I find myself switching accents (and languages where I can) depending on the environment I am in. Friends, family, and even strangers (when I tell them, no, I am not Greek/Russian/Albanian) are confused as to why I do it. I realized, however, that I do it subconsciously and merely as an effort to have the other person better understand me in tones and inflections they can understand. I just wonder how young children can learn this skill- or what I think is one- and how we can expand on their abilities.






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