Speech pathologist and teacher Paula Ferrari is pretty keen on language, and giving birth to twins did nothing to stifle her passion. Sara Coen speaks to the PhD student working double-time to investigate twins and their language development.
Baby brain was not really an issue for 42-year-old Paula Ferrari. In fact, the birth of her twin girls in 2007 was the impetus for her current research with Head of ACU’s Faculty of Education, Professor Kristina Love.
“My PhD is about interaction,” said Paula. “I am observing sets of twins interacting with one of their caregivers while they read books together in the home. It’s an interesting dynamic – and I call it a trialogue, as opposed to a dialogue.”
“There are three people involved when you examine the way twins are developing linguistically – so you might as well call this article Triple talk!” By exploring the complex relationship that exists between twins and their parents, Paula is trying to gain a better understanding of how parents, caregivers and educators can best support the language development of twins. Following a century of research into twins and their language development, studies have shown that language delay and subsequent academic disadvantage is a greater risk for twins than for single-born children.
“As a mother of twins and speech pathologist, this immediately set off alarms bells for me,” said Paula. “I didn’t want my twins to have language delay, so I became extremely interested from that point of view.”
Language delay among twins has been attributed to the extra demands placed on parents in the early days, and the additional work involved with having two children at exactly the same age, and similar stage of development. This is known as “Parental Resource Dilution”. Information designed to help parents raise their children is mostly aimed at parents of singletons, which makes it difficult for parents of twins to access the relevant strategies, advice and support they may require.
“Twins tend to be lumped together, like there is no difference between one and two, when actually there is a huge difference,” said Paula.
“Twins are two unique individuals – with the same issues facing them in life as any other child, except twins have to face the additional challenge of sharing the language stimulation provided by their parents.”
Paula said that language delays can occur when children’s communication attempts are not acknowledged and reinforced in the early stages of their development.
“When my twins were learning to speak, it was extremely tricky as they were both talking and asking questions at the same time. My attention was constantly split in two."
“I would be looking at one child, and answering the other – sometimes my twins didn’t even get that basic eye contact considered to be one of the most important aspects of learning to communicate."
“When children are learning to speak, they usually make a communication attempt, and ideally the parent will respond to this with eye contact, repetition and reinforcement – it’s called being semantically contingent, following the child’s interest with a meaningful response.
“For example, a child may point to a sheep and assign a word to it such as ‘baa’ and the parent will respond – and this is basically how children learn to speak a language, with the help, or ‘scaffolding’, of their parents. “In the case of twins, a child may say ‘baa’, and they are not acknowledged at all because the parent is distracted by another sibling, and the moment is lost.”
Paula said that language delay and academic disadvantage are not inevitable in twins. Twins born into “favourable circumstances” have been found to have a normal rate of language development – with some twins even showing advanced language development.
“Language is far more complex than just vocabulary, syntax and grammar,” she said. “Twins can actually develop advanced conversational skills such as waiting their turn to speak, judging when to interject in a conversation, attracting the attention of others, and participating in an exchange with more than one other person.”
“A lot of the research tends to focus on the language delays, and neglects to mention some of the things that twins are actually good at.”
“It would be interesting to learn more about the special ‘triadic’ environment in which twins learn language to explain some of these findings. That is what my research is all about.”
When children are not getting immediate validation, they can actually devise effective new strategies to gain attention. For example, one of Paula’s twins was born with an extremely loud cry, and the other twin developed an even louder cry to compensate.
“This piercing, siren-like cry was my daughter’s strategy for gaining attention, and it worked – it was a case of the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she said. “The challenge for me, and all caregivers of twins, is making sure that both children still get the attention they need. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. How caregivers may do this when helping their twins learn language has never been explored.”
“Twins can be prone to language delays, but it’s not necessarily going to happen like that. They can also be stronger in specific language areas because of the social experiences they have had”
“I am trying to find out exactly what it is that some caregivers are doing to meet the linguistic needs of their twins – and book reading together provides the ideal framework for my research. My research can provide both caregivers and professionals with a better understanding of how twins are being supported to learn the ‘literate language’ they need for school.”
“My research is family centred – so it’s about children and parents and the connections they are making with each other. I have worked with both adults and children and I can’t say I like one aspect more than the other – I’m interested in both.”
“After graduating as a speech pathologist in 1993, I worked in community health, clinical and educational settings. I really enjoyed community health which was education focused – so I was working with teachers, children and adults. Then after completing a Bachelor of Education at ACU in 2004 I taught as a primary teacher.”
“My interests in speech pathology and education are very broad and when I enrolled in a PhD at ACU I had to narrow it all down which was challenging.”
“I have always had a love of people – and it’s only through language that you can truly get to know and understand people. This is where my interest in language development is derived.”
“I had my twins then it all clicked into place. I began working as a research assistant with Dr Anne Scott from ACU’s Faculty of Education – and this led to my current PhD with Professor Love – Trialogues: Exploring the nature of parent twin triadic book-reading.”
“Observing parents, caregivers and children interacting and engaging with language is a powerful and privileged position to be in. I was destined for this research – I’ve finally discovered an area of research that completely speaks my language.”