Language Development Expert Elma Blom

Elma Blom is professor of Language Development and Multilingualism in Family and Educational Contexts at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Her research and publications focus on multilingualism in children and language development disorders. In her words: "I am concerned with language development in apparently challenging situations." In the theme The first 1001 days of a child's life, she will integrate her knowledge with an interdisciplinary team.

 

Elma Blom

What is it about language that draws Elma Blom? 'One of our most fascinating traits as humans is our ability to both learn language and flexibly adapt it to ever changing contexts', Blom explains. 'Take the way multilingual children mix languages, even in a single sentence, and the surprising words and structures that kids come up with when they're just learning to talk.'

The many facets of language development

Language learning is not always a smooth road. One possible obstacle is DLDs, developmental language disorders. Blom: 'Children with a DLD are like other children in many respects: they have normal intelligence and normal hearing, but they have a lot of trouble learning language. Their problems can be diverse in nature, but the most common denominator is difficulty with grammar and word finding. DLD occurs in different degrees, but overall the linguistic ability of children with a DLD tends to be a few years behind their peers without the disorder.'

Another line within Blom's research is multilingualism. "Young children are capable of learning not just one language, but many different ones side by side. That applies to all children, even those who have trouble learning language, and children with autism, Down syndrome or a DLD. There's a misconception that multilingualism is problematic, but from children who grow up with it we know that learning two, three, even four languages is no problem at all"

 

It's vital to make parents aware of their role early on. How do they talk and interact with their child?

Supplying demand

Multilingualism is also on the municipal agenda of Utrecht, which is one of the university's social partners in this research. Blom continues, "Utrecht is home to many multilingual groups, including some we identify as at-risk. Children from these groups more often enter school with a Dutch language deficit. They can catch up, but if the parents don't have the means to help them along, it can be a risk factor. We know that environmental factors make a difference, and those are things you can try to influence to give these children more stimuli early on. The question is: How do you reach the parents?"

Blom's team asked the municipality and its partners to suggest ways that science may be able to help. "We wanted to know what questions they have, and what we can do to facilitate them. That was a wonderful process, and very enlightening, and yielded lots of questions from which we're now making a selection." One of the ideas to come out of this process was to do more around prevention: "It's vital to make parents aware of their role early on. How do they talk and interact with their child? It helps if the same information is presented to them multiple times, preferably as early as possible, say at baby clinics, or even before that, in prenatal care. To what extent is this being done now? Is there a need for it, and is there anything we can do?"

 

Meisjes werken samen achter de laptop

Mix of disciplines

Besides various social partners, the university is also bringing together scientists from a wide range of fields to contribute to this effort. What does Blom hope this mix of disciplines will accomplish? 'I hope to gain more insight into the correlation between genes, brain development and language ability, and how a child's environment in the first 1001 days, and also before birth, influences that relationship.'

Her team combines all the necessary expertise. 'We we all complement each other', Blom explains. 'I don't know much about biology, but language has a fundamental biological component, and one of the things we would like to know more about is how a mother's hormones and nutrition impact prenatal development and language development later on. To study that, I need the neurobiologists in our team. That's teaching me a great deal about biological processes. And what we're all learning from is the cross-connections between our fields revealed through talking with each other. It's a matter of asking endless "stupid" questions in order to understand each other.'

Elma Blom's first 1001 days
Elma Blom during her first 1001 days

Elma's mother: "You were good at drawing, even as a young child. You mostly drew people, especially princesses and the like. Whenever you were tired you would start drawing, that calmed you down."

 

Elma Blom heads several projects on language development and multilingualism (including an NWO Vidi project on Cognitive Development in the Context of Emerging Bilingualism). She teaches courses in the Pedagogical Sciences BSc, Clinical Child, Family and Education Studies MSc and Educational Sciences: Learning in Interaction Research MSc programmes at Utrecht University. Outside the Netherlands, she works with researchers at the University of Alberta (Canada), University of Edinburgh (UK) and Koç University (Turkey). Elma Blom is also an editor of the Journal of Child Language.