Doctoral defense: Pernille Hansen

Pernille Hansen gave her doctoral defense on October 6 in Gamle Festsal at Domus Academica.

Pernille Hansen
Photo: Nadia Frantsen

Pernille Hansen recently published her doctoral thesis In the beginning was the word: A study of monolingual and bilingual children’s lexicon. Hansen's research project set out to explore how different factors influence what words monolingual and bilingual children know—what their respective lexicons look like—and to develop the Cross-linguistic Lexical Tasks (CLT), a tool that takes one such factor into account to as accurately as possible measure competences across different languages.

The public discourse can easily give us the impression that we should worry about bilingual children's Norwegian competence, when they learn Norwegian in kindergarten but hear a second language at home. Combine this assumption with language tests for children developed to only test their competence in one language, and those bilingual children risk misdiagnosis of language disorders or missing out on assistance when they actually struggle with acquiring language. The problem, however, is actually bigger than this common misconception—kindergartens and the like lack good measuring tools for bilingual children's language competence, mostly because the linguistic factors that affect this competence are too poorly understood. CLT, developed by Hansen and researchers from more than 20 different countries, could fill this niche and solve the issue within the lexical domain.

CLT uses data on lexical developmentto assess four to six year old children's language skills, and the tool has been piloted together with a questionnaire for linguistic profiling—i.e. mapping the children's language background, including what languages they use and are exposed to. LCLT is designed to factor in variation in children’s lexicons arising from cultural and linguistic differences. CLT is currently available for 25 languages, but is not simply translated between these, since that would defy CLT's goal. Lexical equivalents in two languages are rarely if ever completely equal in terms of word length, usage pattern and imageability—i.e. how a word is used and how easily it translates to a mental image. In order for CLT to give comparable results across different languages, it takes into account when a word is acquired in the given language. Hansen and her colleagues emphasize, however, that more research is needed before CLT can be used to accurately diagnose language disorders in young children.

This important research project reminds us, then, that we have to take both languages into account when we measure bilingual children's competence, and that the task of measuring lexical skills has to take lexical factors into account in order to evaluate those competences accurately.

Published Nov. 6, 2017 11:11 AM - Last modified Nov. 6, 2017 11:11 AM