1. Language acquisition in children

The central organizing theme of my work is an interest in how children acquire a first language in such a short time, especially considering that the grammars of human languages are very complex and abstract achievements. For twenty years my colleague Tom Roeper and I have been obsessed with the grammar of wh-questions. We won a grant once by arguing that wh-questions were the key to understanding almost everything about the child’s grammar. They certainly have opened many avenues of exploration in our work, and we continually return to them.

The range of languages being studied for acquisition purposes is ever-increasing. Even though I am virtually monolingual, through work with students and colleagues I have learned interesting things about tiny pieces of African American English, American Sign Language, Arabic, Bulgarian, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Mandarin, Romani, Spanish, Tibetan, Tswana, Turkish and Xhosa. I am deeply interested in universal features of language, but that involves knowing particulars!

  1. Assessment of language

To determine whether a child needs special help from a therapist in learning language, it is necessary to get an accurate idea of what the child can do. How can we best assess this, especially if the child may speak a dialect that is not well represented in standard tests? Much of our recent work has been devoted to developing unbiased assessment techniques, especially for speakers of African American English (AAE link). This work has inspired efforts in other countries to seek solutions to issues of non-standard dialects there also (link).

A few years ago I received a grant to devise a language assessment for younger children aged 3 to 6 years, a screening instrument that is based on a touchscreen. With colleagues at Temple University, University of Delaware and Laureate Learning Systems in Vermont, we have spent four years piloting, revising and testing over 1000 children, both monolingual English children and those becoming bilingual in Spanish and English (link to poster asha schools). Many students have assisted in this testing along with three RAs: Athulya Avarind (now a grad student at MIT) Andrea Takahesu Tabori (now a grad student at Penn State) and Madeline Klein ’15, currently my lab manager.

With colleagues, I am involved in helping to design language assessments in other languages such as Arabic in Saudi Arabia, with Dr. Lamya Abdul Karim, an ex-graduate student who has visited several times and is a Professor at King Saud University in Riyadh. In addition Dr Hristo Kyuchukov and I have devised the first language assessment ever in Romani, spoken by Roma in numerous dialects throughout Europe but much neglected and mistreated, like its speakers (romani-srcld-postersmall.pdf).

My most ambitious project for the last three years has been helping to devise a test of Mandarin for children in mainland China, together with Dr Lucy Liu (an SLP/audiologist) and Dr C-Y Ning (a linguist). The comprehensive language test is called the DREAM, and it has a screener too, both now being sold in China after extensive testing throughout China. The goal was to develop something that could be used accurately by a non-professional, as speech language pathologists are very rare in China. The entire test has involved much programming and considerable statistical expertise, both a real stretch! (link)


  1. Language and Mind

Nobody can study language without wondering about the role that language plays in human minds: does it help you think? The particular interest I have pursued is how learning complex grammar might enable the child to think in new ways about other people’s minds: to represent their beliefs, knowledge, thoughts, feelings. This area of cognitive development is called Theory of Mind, and we have asked whether language helps it develop, and if so, how? We have worked on this problem with populations of language-delayed deaf children, and are deeply interested in intervention (see below). I have several past and ongoing collaborations asking a range of questions about this. One was an NIH grant with Peter de Villiers as part of a large multi-site program project on preschool curriculum development that will follow a large cohort of children from roughly 2 to 6 years, looking at their language and theory of mind skills among other measures. Analysis of these data is still producing many useful results for us and for our students, with posters, honors theses and papers in abundance. (For a version of our complement comprehension test, see here: (Comprehension test link) 

A few years ago via a grant with Jay Garfield (Philosophy) at Smith and Peggy Speas and Tom Roeper (Linguistics) at U.Mass. we explored Tibetan – a language with special means to mark how you know what you know. This so-called “evidential” marking is a bit like tense, but marks the source of belief instead of time! How does a young child learn to mark the sources of her belief? (Link to paper)

  1. Eyetracker lab

I obtained an eyetracker for the Psychology department some years ago, and we have upgraded it in the last year. An eyetracker contains cameras that record where a subject is looking for example how long they fixate on certain objects, or what draws their attention. The eyetracker lab is a busy place, and four honors theses have been completed under my direction in the lab (links to theses by Emma Thomas, Ann Nordmeyer, Samantha Floyd and Katherine Margulis?) There are many projects underway, all of which relate in some way to the issue of whether having access to language changes the way we can make inferences about a scene. We have done some work with children on these questions and I have begun to move more into that domain in a collaboration with Mohinish Shukla at U.Mass. Boston.


  1. Intervention

Researchers who have theories about how children learn encounter a new obligation as well as a testing ground for their theories: how can children who fail to learn be helped to succeed?  For several years I have assisted in the design of software for language intervention created by Laureate Learning Systems in Winooski, Vermont, headed by Dr. Mary Sweig Wilson, a Smith alumna who was a professor of communication disorders. It is humbling to put ideas into application: how certain are we that these are the best of all possible procedures? But it is also deeply gratifying to hope that we can give children stepping stones and set them back on the right course for language acquisition. (link)