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Language Learning across the Lifespan

First and second language acquisition in typically-developing and non-typically developing learners, and in therapeutic contexts

Given the importance of language to humankind, the question of how we acquire languages is one of vital significance. When we think of language acquisition, we tend to think of a baby learning its mother tongue. In fact, although language acquisition continues well into our teens, the fundamental elements of language are more or less established by the age of four in typically-developing children.

boy reading 2
Image by John-Morgan on Flickr

In later life we all learn at least one additional language while at school, when moving to another country, or when doing business abroad. Many children grow up in an environment where they acquire two or more languages simultaneously.

Researchers approach the question of language acquisition and learning in very different ways. Some of us simply observe natural production of language over time, or at particular points in time. Others analyse behavioral patterns in an experimental environment (for example, by observing the eye-gaze of the learner with respect to language input, or their reaction times when asked questions about the language). We may also observe what happens in the brain while language learners are processing language (through ERP or fMRI studies), or compare typically-developing and non-typically developing learners to gain a better understanding of what may enhance or inhibit language learning. Others among us seek to understand which factors are important in the process of language learning by using computers to simulate this process, for example by "teaching" a computer some "rules" and then feeding in new input at different points in time.

Research into language acquisition is, therefore, multifaceted, and involves many disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, sociology, neuroscience, education, computation and engineering. The Language Learning across the Lifespan strand of this Strategic Research Initiative provides all Cambridge researchers in this domain with a platform in which we can exchange ideas, instigate joint research projects and develop teaching which cuts across the boundaries of individual departments, schools and faculties, thereby promoting an even stronger research community in the future.

Dr. Henriëtte Hendriks, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

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