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Bringing the baby lab from Nijmegen to rural Mexico and remote Papua New Guinea

Do children around the world learn language in the same way? A new NWO-funded project at the MPI's Language Development Department seeks to discover the effect of culture on language learning in non-Western communities.
Bringing the baby lab from Nijmegen to rural Mexico and remote Papua New Guinea

Children learn language from the people around them: parents, siblings, other family members, friends, teachers, and more. What children do and who they talk to during a typical day depends on things like their age, their personality, the size of their family, and their culture. A new project funded by the NWO and led by Marisa Casillas at the MPI’s Language Development Department is investigating how these differences in early language experience influence the first few years of language development. 

Casillas is looking at how children learn language in two communities: a rural Tzeltal Mayan village and a remote Papua New Guinean island.

A Tzeltal Mayan mother and her two children pose with their recording gear. Why these two communities? 

This project is focused on how children learn language in communities very different from our own: small villages where families typically grow their own food for a living, live in multi-generational households, and have few toys and books.

Importantly, while the Mayan and Papua New Guinean communities have broadly similar lifestyles, they have very different ideas about talking to young children.

Mayan parents traditionally encourage their children to become keen observers of the social world. Therefore Mayan parents typically try to keep their infants calm and quiet and talk to them less often than we are used to in Western cultures. In contrast, infants growing up on the Papua New Guinean island are often at the center of their social world, and parents directly talk to and play with them often. Despite these differences, children in both places become fluent adult speakers. The real puzzle is then to find out how the learning process adapts to each child’s language environment.

To accomplish this goal, Casillas will visit families in both communities to collect information about the language children hear and speak on a typical day. Children and parents will also participate in experiments designed to measure their language understanding and how they learn new things about language. By bringing the baby lab into the field, Casillas hopes to gain new insight into the role of early social interaction in children’s language development.

Dr. Marisa Casillas poses with a wild taro plant on Rossel Island.


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