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, visit the ANU language lab website.

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. (2018). Individual differences in infant speech segmentation: Achieving the lexical shift. Infancy. doi: 10.1111/infa.12256


The role of statistical learning in language acquisition and processing

Languages are complex dynamic systems; their processing and acquisition require a sophisticated set of mechanisms. One potential mechanism that may support this process is statistical learning, in other words, the process of analysing and grouping co-occurring elements in the environment. Our work on statistical learning takes two directions: Firstly, in line 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 (for more information on this, see the 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 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.


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.


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 of 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 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.


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 (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.

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