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Language Development -

Learning through Processing Research Group

Leader: Evan Kidd

Gabriela Garrido (MPI), Katja Stärk (MPI), Seamus Donnelly (ANU), Noelie Creaghe (ANU), Shanthi Kumarage (ANU), Tanya Price (ANU), Katherine Revius (ANU).

Learning Through Processing



Spoken language is a rapid and transient signal, quickly fading as soon as it is produced. This presents a problem for the child language learner: in order to learn language children must process this ephemeral signal in the moment, but without specific knowledge of their native language this task appears hopelessly complex. How do children’s processing mechanisms develop, and how does processing constrain language development?

To this end, research in the Learning through Processing group aims to understand the intimate relationship between in-the-moment on-line language processing and language acquisition, assuming that children’s input must be filtered through a dynamic parsing mechanism that analyses the input in order to learn from it. Guided by this general aim, the Learning through Processing group has the following specific aims:

  • Identify the learning/processing mechanisms underlying language acquisition.
  • Map how individual-level variation in processing skills relate to language acquisition across development.  
  • Understand how the child’s processing system, which is a universal capacity, supports the acquisition of typologically diverse languages.

To address these aims research in the Learning through Processing group uses multiple methodologies (e.g., EEG, eye-tracking, behavioural testing, corpus analyses, computational modelling) and, together with our international collaborators, conducts research across typologically-diverse languages (e.g., Cantonese, Dutch, English, Farsi, Finnish, German, Italian, Mandarin, Murrinhpatha, Qaqet, Spanish).

Research directions

The Learning through Processing group investigates the relationship between language processing and language acquisition, often in crosslinguistic focus, under the assumption that a more complete account of human language is constrained by the real-time pressure of language processing across the developmental history of the individual. The explicit cross-linguistic focus of the research takes seriously the wide range of typological diversity in the world’s 7000 or so languages: while there are common problems shared by individuals learning different languages, each language is a puzzle that a speaker must uniquely solve.

On-going projects

1.    Individual differences in language acquisition and processing.

There is considerable variation in language proficiency across development and even in adulthood, but this has been traditionally downplayed in linguistic and psycholinguistic theory. In work being conducted at The Australian National University, in collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL:, we are conducting The Canberra Longitudinal Child Language Project, which is tracking individual differences in language processing and acquisition in a cohort of children aged 9 months to 5 years. Specifically, the project is charting individual differences in the children’s language processing, language acquisition, and their input across developmental time. For more information see:

Representative publications:

Kidd, E., Donnelly, S., & Christiansen, M. H. (2018). Individual differences in language acquisition and processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22, 152 - 169.

Kidd, E., Junge, C., Spokes, T., Morrison, L., & Cutler. A. (in press). Individual differences in infant speech segmentation: Achieving the lexical shift. Infancy.

2.    The role of statistical learning in language acquisition and processing.

Languages are complex dynamic systems; their processing and acquisition requires a sophisticated set of mechanisms. One potential mechanism that may support this process is statistical learning, the process of analysing and grouping co-occurring elements in the environment. Our work on statistical learning takes two directions. Firstly, consistent with our focus on individual differences, we conduct studies that aim to measure individual differences in statistical learning and test whether they predict language proficiency (see Individual Differences in Language Development project, In other work conducted in collaboration with PhD student Katja Stärk and Dr Rebecca Frost, we are investigating whether how different probabilistic distributions in language affect infants’ ability to learn linguistic sequences.

Representative publications:

Kidd, E., & Arciuli, J. (2016). Individual differences in statistical learning predict children’s comprehension of syntax. Child Development, 87, 184 – 193.

3.    Language acquisition and processing of under-studied languages.

Much of our knowledge of how humans acquire and process language is based on a very small sample of the world’s languages (< 2%), and most of this sample is skewed towards Indo-European languages. Conducting research on under-studied languages is not only important because we should build theories based on a representative sample of languages, but is perhaps more important because languages are becoming endangered and are dying at a rapid rate. In on-going collaborative work conducted with colleagues at the University of Cologne and The University of Melbourne (and CoEDL), our group is conducting language acquisition and language processing research on indigenous languages in Australia (Murrinhpatha) and Papua New Guinea (Qaqet, East New Britain), which has the dual aims of contributing valuable new data points to our existing evidential base and providing crucial documentary materials to the members of these relatively small linguistic communities.

Representative publications:

Kidd, E. (Ed.) (2011). The acquisition of relative clauses: typology, processing, & function. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kelly, B. F., Kidd, E., & Wigglesworth, G. (2015). Indigenous children’s language: Acquisition, preservation, and evolution of language in minority contexts. First Language, 4/5.

4.    Processing head-final structures in Chinese languages.

A good deal of psycholinguistic research has focused on structures called relative clauses (e.g., the dog that the cat chased). Relative clauses in Chinese are theoretically interesting because languages like Cantonese and Mandarin have the typologically rare combination of subject-verb-object word order and head-final relative clauses, which make the languages particularly useful for teasing apart some differing theoretical predictions. Together with colleagues at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Kobe City University for Foreign Studies we have been investigating monolingual Cantonese and Mandarin children’s on-line processing of different RC types. To date our main finding has been that children’s processing preferences appear to follow the distributional information present in the input. In additional work, we have been investigating how Cantonese-English and Mandarin-English bilingual children acquire different relative clause strategies in their two languages, whether they experience cross-linguistic transfer, and whether this transfer depends on being more dominant in one language than the other.

Representative publications:

Kidd, E., Chan, A. & Chiu, J. (2015). Crosslinguistic influence in Cantonese-English bilingual children’s comprehension of relative clauses. Bilingualism: Language & Cognition, 18, 438 – 452.

Chan, A., Yang, W., Chang, F., & Kidd, E. (2018). Four-year-old Cantonese-speaking children's online processing of relative clauses: A permutation analysis. Journal of Child Language, 45, 174 – 203.

5.    Socio-cognitive influences in language acquisition.

Language acquisition occurs within a rich social context. In on-going work we have been investigating how different dyadic play contexts (namely, symbolic versus functional play) differ in terms of their communicative value. We have found that symbolic play contexts are particularly rich contexts for language learning. Specifically, in symbolic play, infants and caregivers engage in greater joint attention, gesture more, and have more conversational turns. The greater interactional complexity positively influences their spoken language development.

Representative publications:

Quinn, S., Donnelly, S., & Kidd, E. (2018). The relationship between symbolic play and language acquisition. A meta-analytic review. Developmental Review.  doi:10.1016/j.dr.2018.05.005

Quinn, S., & Kidd, E. (2018). Symbolic play promotes non-verbal communicative exchange in infant-caregiver dyads. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. doi:10.1111/bjdp.12251.

Last checked 2018-07-16 by Nanjo Bogdanowicz
Language Development Department

Street address

Wundtlaan 1
6525 XD Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Mailing address
P.O. Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Phone:  +31 24 3521454


Director: Caroline Rowland

Secretary: Nanjo Bogdanowicz