Language acquisition

How do babies learn to speak and understand their native language?

What we study

Since the beginning of the year 2000, researchers at the BRC have been studying language development in Dutch babies and children. Our main goal is to gain a better understanding of how children learn language, a process about which, strangely enough, very little is known.

Our research concentrates on language perception and speech in children between the ages of 4 and 36 months. What do children of this age know about language, and in particular their native language? How do they recognize words in speech? This is more difficult than it sounds. When written, words are separated by spaces, but in speech words are generally joined together. How do children learn new words? How do they store these words in their mental lexicon, the “dictionary” in their brains? How do they recognise words that are stored there? How do they learn the plural forms of words? How do they learn that in a sentence like: “He sees him” the word “him” doesn’t refer to the same person as “he”? How and when do they learn that “He see him” isn’t correct? How do children learn that “the dog sees the cat” doesn’t mean the same as “the cat sees the dog”.

Human communication is a fairly complex psychological phenomenon. This is not only because of language. In order to communicate, we need to understand what others have in mind when they talk to us (social cognitive understanding). In addition, we need to be cooperative and helpful to establish and maintain interaction with others in the first place (prosocial motivation). To find out about these foundations of human communication we look at infant development before language (in Latin, "infans" in fact means 'speechless').

We ask: How do infants naturally communicate with their caregivers, and vice versa? Do infants understand that people have specific things in mind when they act and interact? How cooperative and helpful are babies at this early age? Are there differences in infant communication across cultures?

Answering these questions will help us gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of human communication with regard to social cognition and cooperation, as well as a better understanding of the cute and curious yet speechless beings our babies are.