Multilingualism Research Forum/Flerspråklighetsforum: COVID-19 first lockdown as a unique window into language acquisition: What you do (with your child) matters.

Natalia Kartushina (Associate Professor, MultiLing) will discuss the role of child-parent activities on early language development during the first Covid 19-related lockdown.

Natalia Kartushina smiling and wearing a white floral turtle neck and a pink cardigan

Natalia Kartushina


The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting closure of daycare centers worldwide, led to unprecedented changes in children’s learning environments. This period of increased time at home with caregivers, with limited access to external sources (e.g., daycares) provides a unique opportunity to examine the associations between the caregiver-child activities and children’s language development.

The vocabularies of 1742 children aged 8-36 months across 13 countries and 12 languages were evaluated at the beginning and end of the first lockdown period in their respective countries (from March to September 2020). Shortly after lockdown began in early March 2020 across 13 countries, parents were asked to complete an online questionnaire containing questions on the child’s age, exposure to different languages, number of siblings and vocabulary development. 

Parents were then contacted again at the end of the lockdown (for that family or in that area, in general). They were asked about the amount of time children spent during lockdown on the following activities  (together with a caregiver or alone): shared book reading, structured child-caregiver games (referred to as structured parent-child interaction in the preregistration), free play with their caregiver, singing, speaking, outdoor activities, watching TV, baby shows or cartoons (henceforth, referred to as passive screen exposure), playing digital baby games (henceforth, active screen exposure involving interaction with a de-vice), and playing freely without adults.

Parents were also asked to complete a standardized vocabulary checklist indicating the number of words their child understood and/or said at the beginning, and again, at the end of lockdown so that an increase in the number of words gained over lockdown could be calculated. Then, we assessed whether the time spent on these activities predicted vocabulary development during lockdown, as indexed by the difference in the child’s vocabulary size (in percentile, compared to norms, and in raw scores, where norms were not available) at the beginning and end of the lockdown period. In addition, we also measured caregiver’s education (as a proxy for SES) to account for its potential associations with vocabulary development.

Children who had less passive screen exposure and whose caregivers read more to them showed larger gains in vocabulary development during lockdown, after controlling for SES and other care-giver-child activities.  Children also gained more words than expected (based on normative data) during lockdown, either caregivers were more aware of their child’s development, or vocabulary development benefited from intense caregiver-child interaction during lockdown, or both. We discuss these results in the context of the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Natalia Kartushina is an Associate Professor in Psycholinguistics, who joined MultiLing in December 2020. She holds a PhD in Experimental Psycholinguistics (University of Geneva) and had previously worked as a postdoctoral researcher at BCBL (Spain) and BabyLing (Institute for Psychology, UiO). Her research interests cover first and second-language phonological/lexical acquisition and the role of environment in shaping language learning.

Published Mar. 11, 2022 3:56 PM - Last modified Mar. 11, 2022 3:56 PM