Language Learning and Processing Lab


The lab explores two main questions about language. First, we ask what information children use to learn words. Second, we ask how children and adults represent the structure of the language that they hear and how those representations change over the lifespan.

Words with Multiple Meanings

Many accounts of how children learn words rest on the assumption that each word will have one meaning and each meaning will have one word. There's only one problem with that assumption: it isn't true. Languages are full of words that have more than one meaning. How children learn about those words isn't well-understood. In our lab, we're working on studies that address the following questions.

1. What information in the speech that children hear might help them learn that a single word can have more than one meaning?

We’re studying this using a method called cross-situational word learning, in which children learn some new words, and we change the information that is available to them to determine how different aspects of their experience affect their learning.

2. How do listeners decide which meaning of a word a speaker intends?

We’re trying to answer this question using an eye-tracking methodology. Participants hear sentences that contain words with multiple meanings while looking at pictures and a special camera keeps track of where they look as they listen to the sentence.

Representing Sentence Structure

Learning a language requires learning more than just words. Children also have to figure out how to put those words together in meaningful and appropriate ways. The order of words matters in English and how children learn which word orders are allowed in English and the meanings associated with those word orders is a complex issue. In our lab, we look at sentence structure learning in a couple of different ways.

1. What kinds of information do learners use to figure out how words are allowed to go together?

To answer this question, we teach people (both children and adults) small, made-up languages. When we do this, we can change the kinds of information that would be helpful in learning those languages, and then we see how well the languages are learned.

2. Can children use their knowledge of sentence structure to interpret sentences that contain new words?

We’re studying this question using studies that ask children to make a decision about which video is described by a sentence that contains a new word or to produce a sentence that contains a word they have just learned.