For the first time, a UBC professor has won the highest research honour from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
Janet Werker, a professor in UBC’s Department of Psychology, has been selected as SSHRC’s 2015 Gold Medal winner for her outstanding achievements in the field of children’s language acquisition. Here, she discusses her work in this fascinating field and the next research challenges she plans to tackle.
What inspired you to focus on this area of child development?
I have been fascinated by language throughout my career, and have always wanted to understand how infants so rapidly acquire this incredibly complex system. Living in Canada, an officially bilingual country, and in Vancouver – where the majority of children now grow up with at least two languages in the home – made me want to understand whether and how language acquisition unfolds in a bilingual home.
What’s the most surprising thing you have discovered about children’s ability to acquire language?
I think the most important discovery from my research is just how prepared infants are, already at birth, to acquire the language used around them – and how it is equally natural for babies to acquire two languages as it is one. From the moment they are born, infants choose to listen to speech over other kinds of sounds, to watch talking faces over other kinds of visual stimuli – and their brains respond in a special way to speech over equally complex sounds.
In addition, by birth babies have already learned about the language they heard in utero, and babies exposed to two languages in utero show familiarity with both. This budding familiarity – first to the melody and rhythm of the native language(s), then to its individual sounds, and later to its words and structures – helps infants learn to understand and speak their native language.
What can parents and other caregivers do to best support children’s language acquisition and/or linguistic development?
The best thing parents can do is to realize that language acquisition begins long before the first word – that babies are picking up the properties of the native language from the time they are born (and before!). Moreover, babies do like the special style of “infant-directed” speech most parents naturally use, and do like to engage in “turn-taking” even before they can actually produce words.
So the best thing parents can do is to talk to their children from the time they are newborn infants, and to feel free to do so in a way that engages the child’s interest, that involves a back and forth of who vocalizes when, and that focuses on objects and events that are of interest to the child.
What are the unknowns in your area that you want to explore?
There are a couple of questions that I’m particularly excited about. One is to explore not just how listening to language supports language acquisition for infants, but also how watching talking faces, and making their own attempts to imitate what they hear, promotes language acquisition.
The second and related question is to explore whether other expressions of “culture” contribute to bilingual acquisition. Do different ethnicities or any of the many other expressions of different cultures in the home help bilingual-learning infants keep their two languages distinct, in order to acquire the properties of each?
Finally, I’m very interested in critical periods – are these experiences most influential at certain junctures in development?