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My research explores learning in infancy and childhood.  When we think about the
differences between what infants and adults know, itâs apparent that infants need to
learn about a tremendous number of complex systems.   How do infants master all of
this complexity?  What learning mechanisms are available to infants, and what are the constraints on those mechanisms?  To answer these questions, I focus on language
acquisition.  Language is perhaps the most complex system that infants will ever
acquire.  However, languageâs complexity is of a particular kind: languages consist
of multiple levels (for example, sound, word order, meaning), each of which is partially
determined by structure at other levels.  My aim is to understand how infants integrate
all of these levels, and use structure at one level to aid them in acquiring other levels.

In particular, my research focuses on the ways in which infants learn to take advantage
of the auditory structure of language.  This work can be divided into two broad aims.
The first line of research asks how infants learn which auditory events provide cues to
linguistic structure.  Early in the first year of life, for example, infants recognize the
rhythmic structure of their native language, and use rhythm to help them discover
words in fluent speech.  Similarly, in the first years of their life, infants learn which
sounds are meaningfully different in their language, and which distinctions are
unimportant.  What information do infants use in order to begin taking advantage
of these types of auditory regularities?

My second line of research asks more basic questions about the learning mechanisms
available to infants.  Recent research indicates that infants are very sensitive to the
probabilistic nature of their environment, and learn quite rapidly which events predict
other events (for example, that the first syllable in the word ãprettyä predicts the
second one).  In a series of experiments with infants and adults, I have examined
what types of probabilistic information people use to learn language, what contexts
facilitate the use of that information, and how learning differs across domains and
between infancy and adulthood.  The answers to these questions will eventually
provide an understanding of processes that may be critical to many aspects of
development..
 
 

Updated 2/2/09  ET/tc

 

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