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Children's Language Can be Horribly Misleading

Update Date: Aug 07, 2012 07:59 AM EDT

When children are asked to describe a thing or a situation, their usage of language is very different and thus, their description of an event might turn out to be completely different from an adult's version of the same story and this could lead to misleading testimonies.

On that basis, lead author David Battin, Ph.D, assistant professor at SUNY Institute of Technology, Barbara Lust and Stephen Ceci, both professors of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, conducted a first of its kind study on developmental differences in referential language ability as a factor in children's ability to provide accurate testimony. The study was funded by the Cornell Cognitive Studies Program.

"This is the first study to examine developmental differences in referential language ability as a factor in children's ability to provide accurate testimony," said Ceci.

In the study, 63 children aged between three and ten were shown a four minute video about a woman disobeying instructions and knocking down a stack of empty cans.

The study compared the difference in explanation given by the children aged 3-5 and those aged between 6 and 10.

The result showed that only 13 percent of the younger age group and 65 percent of the older group gave necessary accurate information to identify the woman in the video.

Children in the younger age group used articles like "a", "the" and "they" to refer to the women in the video, these words can drastically alter their explanation of the video, with respect to number of people or objects and their specificity which is critical information in a court of law. 

The most common misleading word use by the children was "the", which was used to describe the woman in the video, instead of "a". The other revelation from the study was the common use of plurality (they) across all ages to describe the woman.

"We found children lead adult conversational partners astray by using the definite article ['the'] to introduce a new person or a thing when they should have used the indefinite article ['a']," said Battin. "But, the big surprise in this research was the very high rate at which both younger and older children initially used the plural pronoun 'they' to refer to the person who committed the highly salient and disallowed act of knocking the cans down," he said.

"When police interview young children in a suspected day care abuse investigation, they can be seriously misled when child after child keeps referring to the suspected perpetrator as 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she.' It can lead to the pursuit of multiple perpetrators when the actual situation had only one," said Ceci, who has consulted for law enforcement and the legal system for several decades.

The study appears in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

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