One might think that Deb Roy is a paranoid individual, seeing how he installed 11 video cameras and 14 microphones throughout his house to monitor every movement and word spoken by anyone inside. Yet, what Dr. Roy of MIT Media Lab is attempting to learn from this seeming madness is how children learn to speak over time, and his newborn son is the first subject.
“My ultimate goal is to understand how language works,” Roy explains. That’s a tall order, and the logical place to start, he maintains, is with children. Decades of inquiry involving video and audio recordings of children interacting with caregivers and psychologists in institutional “speech labs” have laid a foundation to begin answering questions about how children develop language skills. The day-in/day-out interactions between children and adults, Roy points out, are key to the way children grasp language. “But for all of the interest in how children learn language, there’s no comprehensive data of even a single child’s development,” Roy says. “Most researchers rely on speech recordings that cover less than 1.5 percent of a child’s complete linguistic experience.”