Nijmegen Lectures February 2018

26 February 2018 10:00 - 28 February 2018 16:30
Nijmegen Lectures
Understanding how children learn language: What progress has been made since 1965?
by Elena Lieven
Elena Lieven

Elena Lieven is Professor in the Division of Human Communication, Development and Hearing at the University of Manchester.  She completed her undergraduate degree, and her Ph.D. on individual differences in early language development, in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and then moved to an academic position at the University of Manchester. In 1998, she was invited to work for the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, while also running the Max Planck Child Study Centre in Manchester.  From 1996 – 2005, she was Editor of the Journal of Child Language

In 2012, she moved back to Manchester where she is Director of the Child Study Centre and, since 2014,  Managing Director of the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD: ; a collaborative research centre established across the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster, funded by a 5-year grant from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). 

Elena’s principal areas of research are: The emergence and construction of grammar; the relationship between input characteristics and the process of language development; and variation in children’s communicative and linguistic environments.


Ambridge, B., Pine, J. M., & Lieven, E.V.M. (2014). Child Language Acquisition: Why Universal Grammar doesn't help. Language, 90(3), e53-e90. DOI:10.1353/lan.2014.0051



Lecture 1: Language development and Nativism: A historical perspective on whether we have been going round in circles

The cognitive revolution kicked off a major research programme addressing how children learn language.  In opposition to previous approaches centered around learning theory, new proposals based on the idea of an innate syntactic module were advanced.  Among proposed evidence for this was the suggested ‘poverty of the stimulus’, brain localisation for language, a critical period for learning, the separation of cognitive and language development and, more recently, genetic evidence.  I will take each of these proposals in turn and assess how they have fared after nearly 60 years of research.  I will end with suggestions from my theoretical perspective as to how I think research in these fields could inform a psychologically-realistic, developmental theory.



James McQueen, Radboud University Nijmegen

Peter Hagoort, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen

Simon E. Fisher, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen



Hauser, M.D., Chomsky, N.,& Fitch, W.T.(2002). The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?. Science, 298(5598), 1569-1579. DOI:10.1126/science.298.5598.1569

Pinker, S.,& Jackendoff, R.(2005). The faculty of language: What's special about it?. Cognition, 95(2), 201-236. DOI:10.1016/j.cognition.2004.08.004



Lecture 2: Usage-based approaches: How far have they got us?

Approaches that emphasise the role of the language that the child hears and uses have made notable progress in characterising language acquisition as a developmental process.  On these approaches, children extract a network of form-function mappings from the input,  which becomes increasingly productive and general.  I will argue that many of the systematic errors that children make can be explained in terms of input frequencies and without recourse to abstract, rule-based accounts.  I will outline the evidence for this position using corpus, experimental and modelling data,  and use this to address the comprehension-production asymmetry.  I will end by raising a number of unresolved issues relating to the nature of representation and, relatedly, to issues of generalisation, productivity and abstraction.



Petra Hendriks, University of Groningen

Anna Theakston, University of Manchester



Tomasello, M.(2000). Do young children have adult syntactic competence?. Cognition, 74(3), 209-253. DOI: 10.1016/S0010-0277(99)00069-4

Fisher, C.(2002). The role of abstract syntactic knowledge in language acquisition: A reply to Tomasello (2000). Cognition, 82(3), 259-278. DOI:



Lecture 3: Comparative research on language development: How to find universals and particulars?

How much does focusing on a small set of languages and cultures impede our understanding of how children learn language?  I will address the question of universals and particulars in the precursors to language learning as well as the challenges set by the range of pragmatic, semantic and syntactic variation in the world’s languages and cultures. I will cover the considerable advances that have been made by comparisons between relatively closely related languages. Finally, I will address the methodological and theoretical challenges set by ‘exotic’ languages and ‘non-weird’ cultures and attempt to suggest how they might be met.



Bencie Woll, University College London

Ludovica Serratrice, University of Reading

Stephen C. Levinson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen



Stoll, S., & Bickel, B.(2013). Capturing diversity in language acquisition research. In: Bickel, B., Grenoble, L.A., Peterson, D.A., & Timberlake, A. (Eds.). Language typology and historical contingency. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 195-216.

Freudenthal, D., Pine, J.M., Jones, G., & Gobet, F.(2015). Simulating the cross-linguistic pattern of Optional Infinitive errors in children's declaratives and Wh-questions. Cognition, 143, 61-76. DOI:10.1016/j.cognition.2015.05.027


Caroline Rowland
Christina Bergmann
Tineke Snijders
Saoradh Favier
Connie de Vos
Susanne Brouwer
Nanjo Bogdanowicz
Martina Bernhard


Aula RU & MPI for Psycholinguistics

Nijmegen lectures 2018 February




nanjo.bogdanowicz [at]

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