Most research on early language acquisition has documented input and learning landmarks in only a handful of cultures, the assumption being that mechanisms postulated to explain acquisition in these cultures are universal. However, some previous work suggests that the conditions in which young children acquire their native language vary greatly across cultures.
Are acquisition landmarks indeed more variable than previously thought? May we be wrong regarding the universal validity of postulated language acquisition algorithms? Or has the extent of diversity perhaps been over-estimated by previous work?
To answer these fascinating (and unsettling) questions, we work on mainly two fronts. First, we try to more accurately document the “real” input to language infants experience across a range of cultures and social settings. Naturalistic observations are extremely useful to describe the experiences available to infants in their everyday life in a completely ecological manner. Nowadays, it has even become relatively easy to do this via small recording devices worn by the child throughout one or more typical days. These very long recordings are analyzed using a combination of expert linguistic annotation and automatized big data analyses. To document young children’s early achievements, we carry out field-adapted psycholinguistic experiments. Second, we engage in tightly controlled laboratory experiments and computational modeling to try to test the plausibility and promise of diverse theories or mechanistic pathways. Across our projects, we are committed to improving our scientific methods to improve the robustness and generalizability of our results.