Funded Grants

Early language acquisition: Beyond WEIRD

In a spacious kitchen, a 6-month-old American baby bangs a loud rattle against her high-chair’s tray, causing the cereal on it to fly in all directions. Her mother takes the rattle away while saying “Focus on your food now, ‘kay?” Thousands of miles away, a Kaluli mother is walking to a neighboring village; her infant is lying on a netted bag against her mother’s back. According to anthropological reports, it is not until many months later, when the baby has become a talking toddler, that the mother will speak directly to her. Both children will come to learn language, but will this happen at the same rate and following the same process? The answer to this question is relevant not only to our understanding of cognitive development, but also to redressing inequalities. In fact, some previous work, including from randomized control trials, suggests that quantity and quality of speech experienced early on promotes cognitive development, and eventually has positive impacts on academic performance and economic outcomes. How do cultural differences in early input contribute to long-term effects?

My work focuses on how young children learn their native language(s). More specifically, I aim to shed light on the learning mechanisms that are involved in the acquisition process. I employ an interdisciplinary, multi-method approach: Audio- and video-recordings and controlled experiments are used to document infants’ input and outcomes; meta-analyses, to integrate across multiple (necessarily partial and noisy) results; and computational models, to better describe the input exhaustively, and check whether a hypothetical mechanistic explanation linking experiences to outcomes is actually feasible. In current and future work, I extend this systematic, large-scale approach to cultures that are seldom studied, particularly those that have been described as having distinct properties for language acquisition. This line of investigation allows us to assess how resilient language acquisition processes are, which has both theoretical and practical implications.