Students in the Field: Q&A with Laura Jonsson

REAP Laura Jonnson 2.jpg

REAP Laura Jonnson 2
Laura playing with a baby at a REAP parenting center in Shaanxi Province.
Photo credit: 
Rural Education Action Program

Laura Jonsson is a Stanford undergraduate student, Class of 2020, majoring in human biology and hoping to minor in education and Middle Eastern literature, languages, and cultural.  
As a REAP student intern in 2017 Laura traveled to Xi’an, China where she spent three weeks working with families and babies supporting our Parenting the Future project. During her time in the field it became evident that Laura was passionate about early childhood development. Speaking four languages, with Mandarin being one of them, Laura quickly took to the field and seamlessly engaged with families and researchers alike. This spring, Laura returns to the field, but this time leading her own research project looking into language acquisition and language environments in rural China. The following Q&A dives into Laura’s story and research journey with REAP.
I know your research interest in early childhood development grew after interning with REAP, but what first sparked your interest in early childhood development and language acquisition?
I first became interested in child development when I was working in Beijing during my freshman and sophomore years in high school. I was working for a non-profit called Care for Children that works with the foster care system and orphanages in rural China to place orphans in local families through a foster care model to help integrate them into the community and provide them with a grounded family life. 
Really, I’ve always been interested in China, children, and nurturing, and language has always been a big part of my life. I grew up moving every couple of years and can speak 4 languages, so I’ve always been interested in how children learn languages. This project is basically a synthesis of my personal experience living and then working in China, growing up abroad, learning different languages, and my academic experience working in a language acquisition lab this summer. So, it’s essentially all of my favorite curiosities and interests combined into one project.
What’s the motivation behind your research project?
The motivation behind the project is to have a better understanding of what a rural Chinese child hears at home. We at REAP have studied rates of language delay and also associated rates of cognitive delay but using this instrument of a [LENA] audio recorder will be the first time we get to hear into the lives of these children and I think that will illuminate patterns in language environments at home and also how language abilities grow overtime, from March to August.
So what will you be doing in the field over spring break? 

Language develops naturally over time, but what we’re hoping to illuminate is how the language environment of a couple of families might be richer than another, showing a better trajectory of language acquisition. 

So, we will be contacting families who are currently not a part of any other REAP project and collecting a full day of audio recording [using a small LENA recording device attached to the baby’s clothing], as well as [conducting] a MacArthur-Bates CDI, which is a parent report measure of language development, from each family. [We’ll collect this data] at "time point one" in March, and then again at "time point two" in the summer, in order to show the growth of language development as a result of the [varying degrees of each] caregiver’s rich language environment. 
What do you expect the data will tell you?
Given what we know about parenting behaviors in rural families, I honestly expect the data will show that caregivers do not talk to their children all that often. Observing family environments in the population before has shown me that children are typically fed and cared for deeply but are typically not spoken to or read to that much, which is what's causing a lot of the language delay. I'm also hoping it will illuminate patterns of what good rich language looks like in this population.

How do you think your research could affect future investigations and interventions? 
I think it will help us better understand the current status of language delay and could even become part of the [REAP] parenting center curriculum - a focus on language acquisition and what rich talk sounds like and looks like. 
How do you think this project will influence your future career plans?
I know I want to be working with kids [in the future] and I think this project will help me figure out if I want to be working at the level of individual, listening to one child at a time, or if I want to be working at the level of populations, and I think this project lends itself to both of those. 
Written by Heather Rahimi, REAP Communications Associate.