In July, I was given an amazing opportunity to visit the new Language Development Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, thanks to a travel award from LuCiD.
The department is in its infancy (pun intended), having been founded by LuCiD’s Prof Caroline Rowland in September 2016. Since then, many postdoctoral researchers and PhD students from different cultural and academic backgrounds have joined the group to study the language learning system and how it changes throughout our lives. During my visit, I enjoyed many conversations with these expert developmental researchers and heard about their fascinating projects.
Dr Christina Bergmann told me about her work into how children learn the words of their language while overcoming challenges such as differences in the language input they receive and their individual learning abilities. Together with PhD student Julia Egger, they are investigating variability in the language that infants hear and how quickly they are able to process it using methods such as eye-tracking and recorded play sessions.
I was also able to meet with former LuCiD travel grant recipient Dr Rebecca Frost, who told me about her latest research into how infants learn from the statistical patterns in the language they hear. Many studies have identified statistical learning as a potential driver of language acquisition in infants, often by using artificial languages created in the lab. Rebecca and PhD student Katja Stärk are currently interested whether children can use patterns in the spoken language they experience in the real world to learn word boundaries, which they are exploring through an innovative combination of experiments and corpus analyses.
During my visit, Dr Marisa Casillas was preparing to conduct exciting field research in Papua New Guinea to study children from native communities that speak a language called Tzeltal. Marisa explained that there are cultural differences in how parents interact with their children, and she is currently examining whether these interaction styles can affect language learning, particularly in populations that are often neglected in psycholinguistic research. This project is complemented by the PhD work of Ingeborg Roete, who is using computational models to test how parents adapt their use of language to the needs of their children.
As well as learning about the cutting-edge research being conducted by the language development team, the main purpose of my visit to Nijmegen was to work with Dr Evan Kidd, a senior investigator within the department and the head of the international Learning Through Processing group. Evan’s research focuses on how the language we hear is processed moment-by-moment, and how this affects the path children take to learn it. Within the field of sentence processing, many researchers have tried to explain why some sentence structures are harder to read and understand than others; for example, “the reporter that attacked the politician admitted the error” is easier to understand than “the reporter the politician attacked admitted the error”. It is unclear whether this reflects differences in language experience, cognitive demands, or something else entirely. Throughout my visit, I met with Evan to develop new ideas and plan a project to explore why these processing difficulties occur, which we have continued to work on since.
But my visit to Nijmegen was not limited to just the Language Development Department. Although Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands with over 2000 years of history, the Max Planck Institute is a dynamic research centre for psycholinguistics that hosts many conferences and workshops throughout the year. This afforded me the opportunity to attend the International Workshop on Language Production in early July, where I presented some of my PhD research as a poster and received some invaluable feedback.
I would like to express my unreserved gratitude to LuCiD for making this incredible visit possible. Not only was I able to learn more about developmental research, the travel award allowed me to experience life working at a large research institute devoted to the psychology of language. Better yet, after finishing my PhD in September, I was offered the chance to return to the department as a postdoctoral researcher. And after such a great experience in July, I was very keen to get started.
Dank je wel LuCiD!