Issue No 10: August 2005
Total of $60m funding announced for public policy research
Q&A: PIs taking leave exceeding 183 days
Visit to Lingnan University
Oxygen-scarce oceans threaten fish survival
Natural anti-fouling compounds found in study of coral and sponges
Shellfish used as a fish farm biofilter
World's largest child bilingualism database helps linguistics research
Morpheme awareness clue to Chinese language ability
Ancient language links to modern Chinese

The world’s largest video-linked
database of children becoming bilingual has been produced by researchers in Hong Kong.
Six children from four families practising a one-parent one-language strategy are subjects of the database which includes about 170 hours of audio and video files.
With additional segments soon to be added, Principal Investigator Prof Virginia Yip of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and her husband Co-Investigator Dr Stephen Matthews from The University of Hong Kong, are setting out to break their own record.
Dr Matthews and Prof Yip with their database on bilingual children
The database encapsules the early bilingualism development of Hong Kong children from 15 months to four and a half.
From the original recordings to transcribing them and converting them into a browsable Internet format linking video, digitised speech and text has taken 10 years.
The database is accessible at, the Language Data Exchange System website of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, US, and has proved to be a useful study resource for researchers in linguistics, psychology and cognitive science around the world.
Researchers can view video clips of the children in their natural family learning environment, listen to associated audio tracks, and follow text versions of the audio tracks all on one screen.
The text, in English and Cantonese, both romanised and in Chinese characters, is highlighted as the video files progress, similar to subtitling in a feature film.
The recordings have given interesting insights into how children learn to be bilingual. Prof Yip and Dr Matthews, who kept diaries of interesting dialogue used by the children, supplementing the video clips, identify what they call “bootstrapping;” using the structure of one language to influence the composition of the other.
For example, instead of asking in English “why are you carrying me?” one child based the construction on what might be the Cantonese question equivalent: “Zou mat pou ngo aa?” (literally “do what carry me?”)
Another phenomenon they identified was “code mixing” where the children used both Cantonese and English in the same sentence.
“One of our main objectives,” Dr Matthews said, “was to produce a multimedia state-of-the-art database. Researchers in many fields can use it for their own special interests.”
Already the database has been used in studies on child language acquisition, childhood bilingualism, and developmental psycho-linguistics. The database focuses on Cantonese-English bilingual children but the same format could be used for any other languages, he said.
Under the one-parent one-language approach, each parent communicates with their children in a different language.
“Having one parent speaking one language is definitely an advantage but it is not a necessary condition to becoming bilingual,” said Prof Yip. “Many parents, for example, speak Cantonese and a bit of English, and we’re looking at further research to examine how children become bilingual in these families.”
She added: “It’s important to expose the child to more than one language to activate the language-relevant parts of the brain to work early. Many linguists and cognitive scientists believe that a child’s first few years are golden years for language acquiusition when the language instinct is fully functioning”
Dr Matthews added: “There are definite advantages to being bilingual. Tests show it can lead to flexibility of thinking and it helps the learning of further languages.
“One misconception is that the more languages you have filling your head, the more confused you will be but research shows the opposite; the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn others.”

Principal Investigator
Prof Virginia Yip :