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Language Program

Researchers in the Language Program investigate language development in typically developing children and language processing in adults, and study children and adults with language disorders, such as specific language impairment and aphasia. Research findings from the Language Program inform our understanding of language at a theoretical level, and also provide the basis for more effective diagnosis and treatment of language impairment.

Program Leader

Distinguished Professor Stephen Crain

Program Leader Distinguished Professor Stephen Crain

Truth Value Jugdement Task

Language Acquistion


Word learning in aphasia

Lyndsey Nickels, Shiree Heath and Nora Fieder

It is not just children that learn new words. We all learn new words throughout our lifespan - for example, to name new fictional characters (Dumbledore), new superfoods (quinoa) and new trends in technology (selfie). After stroke or brain injury some people have aphasia, a problem with speaking, understanding, reading and writing. People with aphasia usually have problems retrieving the words needed to communicate. Just as we all do, people with aphasia need to learn new words in order to talk about new people, foods, and trends. Surprisingly there has been relatively little work examining word learning in aphasia. The aim of this project is to address this gap by looking at two kinds of learning, in people with aphasia and in older adults without aphasia. First, we investigated how well people in these groups could learn to correctly pair new shapes. We found that even healthy older adults without aphasia had a great deal of difficulty with this task but, critically, many people with aphasia performed no worse than older adults. Second, we examined how well people with aphasia and healthy older adults learned the names of new dogs, plants and musical instruments. Once again, healthy older adults showed a huge range in their abilities, with some hardly learning any of the new words. Although people with aphasia found this task hard, some performed as well as the poorer healthy older adults. The next step is to see whether the learning ability of people with aphasia relates to how easily they relearn words they knew previously - does learning ability predict their response to treatment?

How we produce plural nouns

Lyndsey Nickels, Nora Fieder, Britta Biedermann and Niels Schiller (Leiden University, The Netherlands)

If we want to convey that we are referring to more than one of something, we usually do this by producing the plural form of a word (dogs rather than dog). Choosing to use a plural noun has 'knock on' effects. In English, articles have to agree in number with the noun (several apples vs. an apple; these apples vs. this apple), and the subject of a sentence must agree in number with the verb (the boy runs vs. the boys run). In other languages, even adjectives must agree in number with nouns (German: grüner Apfel 'green apple' vs. grüne Apfel 'green apples'). As these examples indicate, number is a syntactic feature with its value set to singular or plural. While there has been substantial research devoted to number agreement at the level of the sentence, relatively less is known about the representation of number at the level of individual words. In this project, we proposed a new representational framework for the lexical syntax of number in spoken word production. This new framework accounts for experimental findings concerning number in the production of nouns and noun phrases. This framework pertains to the representation of both regular (dog, dogs) and irregular (mouse, mice) nouns, as well as more unusual cases such as pluralia tantum (scissors), zero plurals (sheep) and mass nouns (garlic).

L2 acquisition of English plurals by Mandarin-speaking 3-year-olds

Nan Xu and Katherine Demuth

Mandarin Chinese is the second most common language spoken in Australian homes, following English. Yet we know little about how Mandarin-speaking children acquire English. Older child and adult Mandarin speakers find it challenging to learn English grammatical inflections, such as plurals (cat vs. cats), and fail to produce them even after many years of immersion in English. This is not surprising, because Mandarin has neither grammatical inflections nor word final consonant clusters. In this study we examined whether 3-year-old Mandarin-speaking children who were acquiring English as their second language experience similar challenges in learning plurals. We found that even child participants with only 1-2 years of exposure to English at childcare were able to produce highly frequent forms of plurals such as bees and cats, but were unable to produce less frequent syllabic plurals forms such as buses. The results have implications for identifying specific language impairment in bilingual children. Although all children take longer to acquire less frequently occurring forms, a delay in the acquisition of highly frequent forms by bilingual children may indicate the presence of specific language impairment.

Strategies in the processing of interrogative and declarative rises in Australian English: Implications for first and second language acquisition

Elaine Schmidt, Brechtje Post (University of Cambridge, UK), Carmen Kung, Ivan Yuen and Katherine Demuth

In many varieties of English, statements are indicated by falls in pitch, whereas questions are indicated by rises in pitch. In Australian English, intonation rises come at the ends of both statements and questions. We were led to ask whether the statements and questions can be distinguished by speakers of Australian English in situations that are devoid of top-down contextual information which could assist in disambiguation, for example, in noisy environments. The study sought to determine whether statement- rises and question- rises can be distinguished without contextual support and, if so, whether the identification of the speech act being performed occurs in a gradient fashion, modulated by pitch height. The findings indicated that questions and statements in Australian English are perceptually distinguishable, even without contextual support. Moreover, the distinction between questions and statements occurs in a gradient manner, with increased pitch height shifting the probabilities toward a question interpretation. Most importantly, the results suggest that listeners employed different processing strategies depending on the gender of the speaker: female rises were more likely to be interpreted as questions if the pitch height was ambiguous, whereas similar pitch height was interpreted as statements for male speakers. The results have important implications for the acquisition of intonation patterns in children and for second language learners of English. We do not yet know the age at which children develop adult-like sensitivities in distinguishing question-rises and statement-rises. We are currently investigating the possibility that Mandarin L2 learners of English exhibit sensitivities to different pitch rises because Mandarin is a tonal language.

Two negatives don't always make a positive

Rosalind Thornton, Anna Notley, Vincenzo Moscati and Stephen Crain

We learn at school that we shouldn't use 'double negatives'. We are told that sentences like 'That won't do you no good' (meaning: That won't do you any good) and 'I can't find my keys nowhere' (meaning: I can't find my keys anywhere) are grammatically incorrect. According to grammar books, Standard English does not even allow such expressions, although these are considered to be completely normal sentences in many other languages of the world. Moreover, we can certainly understand these double negative sentences when we hear them on TV or in the lyrics of songs, even if we don't produce them. The findings of a recent study with children suggest that double negative sentences are actually basic to English grammar. We tested monolingual preschool children and adults to see how they interpreted sentences like 'The princess who danced didn't eat nothing'. Notice that this sentence is ambiguous. The meaning that is associated with 'poor grammar' can be paraphrased as 'The princess who danced didn't eat anything'. On the other meaning, the two negative words cancel each other out, so the result is a positive meaning which can be paraphrased as 'The princess who danced ate something'. In the experiment, we used puppets to present short stories to children and adults. The stories were followed by a test sentence that contained two negative words. The events that took place in these stories were compatible with both meanings. We found that the adults overwhelmingly favoured the Standard English meaning where two negatives make a positive. In contrast to adults, children understood the same test sentences to have the poor grammar meaning on three-quarters of the trials. This finding is interesting because children growing up in homes where Standard English is spoken rarely encounter the poor grammar meaning, yet the children we interviewed overwhelmingly opted for this interpretation when given a choice. This suggests that double negatives are a natural part of English grammar - it's just that Standard English speakers learn not to use them.

Children's inferences: Beyond literal meaning

Stephen Crain, Jacopo Romoli and Lyn Tieu (École Normale Supérieure, France)

By age 3, children are effectively adults in certain aspects of language, including sentence structure. However, children are less able than adults in understanding inferences that go beyond what is literally said. For example, suppose a parent tells a child 'I ate sushi or pasta for lunch today' when, as a matter of fact, the parent had eaten both sushi and pasta for lunch. This sentence contains the disjunction word 'or.' Adults judge the sentence with 'or' to be a false description of the events that took place. They infer that the parent should have used 'and' to convey the meaning that they had eaten both sushi and pasta. In contrast to adults, children as old as 6 will accept this sentence with the disjunction word 'or' as true, even if the parent had eaten both sushi and pasta. Nevertheless, children are remarkably adept at making inferences that involve the word 'or' when it appears in combination with a modal verb such as 'may' or 'can'. If a parent tells a child 'Everybody may have ice cream or candy for dessert', even 4-year-old children infer that each person is free to choose between the two desserts. In this case, children and adults make exactly the same inference. We have investigated a variety of inferences in great detail in studies with both Mandarin-speaking children and English-speaking children. The most significant finding is that children acquiring both languages display a remarkably similar pattern in making inferences. This pattern, in turn, offers support for a unified theory of the mechanisms responsible for computing inferences by speakers of any human language. The findings also provide insights into the meanings that are assigned to logical words by children acquiring even historically unrelated languages.


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