Projects at the Language Development department

Research projects at the Language Development Department are organised around three themes; Language over Development, Language across the World, and Language in the Brain.

Curious to find out what we are working on at the moment? You can find an overview of our current projects below.

Language over Development

How do caregivers' beliefs and behaviours shape language?

Over the last few decades, many successful research projects have been carried out into early language acquisition and word learning, with a focus on infants’ biases and abilities to extract information from their input. But who provides this input for language learning?

In order to find answers to this intriguing question, Christina Bergmann and Julia Egger are using an integrative approach to language learning, studying both the caregiver (from their ideas about parenting and their personality to overt and measurable behaviour) and their infant. In addition to early word knowledge, they are also interested in infants’ cognitive abilities and temperament. The goal of this project is to better understand how infants’ input is shaped through their interaction with caregivers.


How does modality affect word learning?

How does the modality affect word learning?

The average vocabulary of a native English-speaking adult consists of around 17,000 words. Infants are obviously not born with this vast mental dictionary; they gradually learn new words and their meanings as they develop.

Novel words can be learned in two ways (or modalities); listening and reading. People can be exposed to new words and deduce their meanings by listening to other people’s speech, for example during conversations, but also by watching TV or listening to the radio. Once an individual has learnt to read, they can also come across new words while reading novels, comics or even food labels.

It is still unclear how the modality in which a new word is experienced (i.e. spoken or written) affects word learning in adults. Even less is known about the effects of modality on word learning in children, whose reading ability develops rapidly over a just a few years.

This project, led by Merel Wolf and Alastair Smith, is a collaboration between the MPI’s Language Development and Psychology of Language Departments. The team aims to establish the direction of the modality effect on novel word learning in adults, find explanations for this effect and investigate how this may change over reading development in children.


The Language 0-5 Project

The Language 05 project

The Language 0-5 Project, headed by Caroline Rowland, director of the Language Development Department, explores how children’s developing brain supports language learning and why some children develop language more quickly than others.

The Language 0-5 Project follows 80 English-learning children from 6 months to 5 years of age to build a comprehensive picture of language development from the very beginning through to school readiness. We are collecting a detailed longitudinal corpus of naturalistic, experimental, questionnaire and standardised measures of cognitive, socio-cognitive and linguistic development. This will enable us to develop explanations of the way in which children’s language-learning mechanisms interact with changes in their knowledge and processing abilities over the course of development. It will also allow us to determine how a child’s family circumstances affect language development, and deliver practical, evidence-based advice about the determinants of poor language growth.

The Language 0-5 Project is an initiative of the ESRC International Centre of Language and Communicative Development.

Language across the World

How do infants' early experiences of language impact their language development?

Language across the world research project

Children learn language from hearing and using it with others. But across the world’s cultures, caregivers have very different ideas about how to talk to children. These cultural differences are bound to impact on how children learn language, but we still know very little about language development in cultures other than our own. This project, led by Marisa Casillas, focuses on language development in two non-Western traditional societies; one Mayan and one Papua New Guinean.

Although there are many similarities between these two communities, their ideas about talking to young children are radically different: the Papuan caregivers frequently engage in face-to-face talk with their infants, while the Mayan caregivers emphasise a calm infancy, so they tend to talk to their infants less frequently.

This project leverages this difference to ask how infants' experience with language influences the way they attend to, process, and use linguistic information within their environment. The team integrates anthropological methods and psycholinguistic measures of language development in both communities, focusing on children’s babbling, word learning, phonological development, conversational turn-taking skills, and the kind and quantity of speech they hear around them.

This project is partly funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Language in the Brain

How do infants compute regularities in speech to shape their understanding of language?

There are many tasks that infants must master in order to acquire language, including spotting individual words in speech, and figuring out how these words are used. These tasks are highly complex, not least because speech is fast and continuous, and because the creative power of language means that individual words can be combined in an infinite number of ways. However, infants succeed at these tasks with remarkable ease, thanks in part to their expert ability to spot patterns. Even without trying to, infants can compute information about the way items in speech co-occur (for example, syllables in words, or words in grammatical structure), helping them to identify words, and the constraints that govern the way those words are used. This computation of co-occurrences is called statistical learning, and research suggests that infants utilise statistical learning mechanisms for several tasks during language acquisition.

At the Language Development Department, Rebecca Frost, Katja Stark and Evan Kidd, are studying the way infants draw on regularities in speech to shape their understanding of words and grammar. Their research combines corpus analysis with behavioural and neurophysiological studies (eye tracking, EEG) to:

a) examine infants’ capacity for statistical language learning from naturalistic distributions, and

b) document the way that sensitivity to these distributions emerges over development.

The goal is to find out how infants draw on distributional information when learning to identify words and structure from speech, and further our understanding of how these processes develop in the brain. Through cross-linguistic work, the team aims to answer important questions about how the distributional properties of different languages may shape learning in different ways.


How is a child’s speech influenced by what they hear?

How is a child's speech influenced by what it hears?

Language learning is a dynamic process; the language that adults use with children changes as the children become more sophisticated language users.

The research team, led by Ingeborg Roete and Marisa Casillas, is investigating how the speech children hear from others influences what they say, and how, in turn, the speech that children produce influences what others say to them. This project uses methods and ideas from statistical learning and interactional pragmatics to characterise how the needs of everyday communication shape the ways in which caregivers and children use language with each other, collaboratively forming the foundation upon which children can begin to build up linguistic knowledge.

To answer this question the team uses a combination of computational modelling, observation, and behavioural experiments, all aimed at tracking the relationships between caregiver and child speech in the first few years of life.

Innovations Team projects

Does screen size affect how well children match sentences to pictures?

Unfortunately, children cannot tell us how they learn language, so we have to find out in other ways. Child language researchers have developed a range of methods to do this. We can measure where children look when they hear a word or a sentence to discover what language they understand, we can measure how the brain reacts to language, and we can use elicitation methods to discover what rare words and sentence structures children can use at different ages, and thus understand the limits of their knowledge. However, these methods only indirectly measure what children know and how they learn it. This means that even subtle changes to the study’s procedure (e.g. changing the size of the pictures that children are watching, changing the voice that speaks the stimuli from a man’s to a woman’s) can affect how children respond.

The Innovations Team at the Language Development Department investigates how simple changes to experimental procedure affect children’s behaviours in language learning studies, and uses this information to develop better methods.

Building better annotation tools

To find out how children use the information in their environment to learn a language, we need to analyse what this environment is; what do they hear, see, touch, and smell in their daily lives? However, we lack the tools needed to record, transcribe, annotate, and analyse these experiences on a large scale. Researchers at the Language Development Department are working with The Language Archive, and teams across the world, to develop semi-automated methods for analysing audio-video records of child language experiences and environments.

For example, in collaboration with the ACLEW and DARCLE groups, Marisa Casillas is working on scientific protocols and initial training datasets designed to jump-start algorithms for extracting child language measures from audio data (e.g., automatic tools for classifying properties of child and adult speech).

The goal of these projects is to facilitate the production of reliable, time-saving tools that can be used by scientists to analyse and compare children’s language environments around the world.

Reproduction and replication: Open Science at the Language Development Department

The ultimate aim of all research is to gain new insights that are relevant for everyone. An important step in that process is being transparent and conscientious about as much of our work as possible; in other words, making science open. The resulting transparency and availability of research output ensures that results can be reproduced (so we can check conclusions) and replicated (so we can carry out new studies on the same question).

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has long been at the forefront of open science, with initiatives increasing access that range from shared materials and data at The Language Archive, to free tools developed by the Innovations team, and freely accessible publications thanks to the library staff.  

At the Language Development Department, we go a few steps further and actively promote best practices in research, both in our everyday lab life and by actively participating in projects that aim to make language development research more transparent, robust, and replicable. One is the ManyBabies project: the first large-scale effort to replicate key studies in developmental research. Our Christina Bergmann is a member of the governing board, and our Baby and Child Research Center is one of the participating labs. ManyBabies tackles both methodological questions (are results from different tasks and populations really comparable?) and investigates key studies of high theoretical importance. At the same time, ManyBabies serves as example for transparent research: all materials and data (within the limits of participant protection laws) are shared publicly and the hypotheses and analyses are preregistered. The first ManyBabies studies are now running, with over 50 labs across the globe taking part!

A second example is MetaLab. Here, anyone can explore all available studies on a particular topic of language acquisition and cognitive development. MetaLab is growing all the time, but already covers data from over 15,000 babies and children. The Language Development Department’s Christina Bergmann is a member of the international team behind MetaLab. The database contains several studies from the Baby and Child Research Center, which can now be interpreted in the context of all other known data on the same phenomenon.


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