Speakers Series: Language Science Talks!

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Beginning in January 2017, Language Sciences is pleased to present ‘Language Science Talks‘, a series of talks by outstanding researchers in the language sciences from around the world. The first five talks are being held in conjunction with the graduate course Psychology 584A, “Language Development in Infancy and Childhood”, and will focus on topics in that area. These talks are supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) 2015 Gold Medal award given to Janet Werker.

The talks will be held in the Auditorium in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum (2212 Main Mall). There will also be viewings of the livestreams of the talks at UBC Okanagan in room 386 of the Arts Building (1147 Research Road, Kelowna). Admission is free, and all are welcome! If you’re unable to make it to either location in person, you can also view the livestreams here.

If you will be attending the talks in person, pre-registration is recommended, as seating is limited; registration links are given below. Please let the staff at the admission desk of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum know that you are attending the Language Sciences talk.

Krista Byers-Heinlein, Concordia University
One baby, two languages: How infants navigate and learn from bilingual environments
Tuesday, January 24, 2017, 3:30 pm

Infants growing up in bilingual environments must build a language system that accommodates two languages.  An important task for these infants is to discriminate and differentiate their languages.  While it is easy to imagine an early bilingual environment that neatly packages the two languages in a way that facilitates this task (e.g. one-parent-one-language), bilingual infants do not necessarily encounter their languages in this way. This talk will present evidence that bilingual infants typically hear their two languages in bilingual contexts: spoken by the same person, in the same situation, and/or within the same sentence.  Experimental work is beginning to reveal how bilingual infants cope with the bilingual nature of their input, including language discrimination and the processing of code switched speech.  Issues and challenges in studying bilingual language acquisition will be highlighted.

Register now!

Michael C. Frank, Stanford University
Bigger data about smaller people: Studying children’s language learning at scale
Tuesday, February 7, 2017, 3:30 pm

How do children acquire a language? Decades of work have provided a roadmap of principles and mechanisms for early language learning as attested by small-scale laboratory tasks. But there is not yet a convincing empirical synthesis of this work that addresses both the systematicity and ubiquity of language learning and the variability of learning trajectories across children. In this talk I will describe some initial steps towards such a synthesis. This research integrates high-density from individual children learning a single language and summary from tens of thousands of children learning more than a dozen languages. Taken together, the data support a hybrid picture in which children slowly accumulate knowledge in rich social contexts but also show evidence for surprisingly fast grammatical abstractions.

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Jenny Saffran, University of Wisconsin
Statistical learning and early language development
Tuesday, February 28, 2017, 3:30 pm

Long before infants produce their first words, they have learned a tremendous amount about their native language(s). What do infants know, and how did they learn it? One important way that infants learn is by tracking the statistical properties of their native language(s). Implications for atypical language development will also be considered.

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Sandra Waxman, Northwestern University
What’s it all about: How (and how early) do infants link language and cognition?
Tuesday, March 14, 2017, 3:30 pm

Language is a signature of our species. To acquire a language, infants must identifywhich signals are part of their language and discover how these are linked to the objects and events they encounter. For infants as young as 3 months of age, listening to human vocalizations promotes the formation of object categories, a fundamental cognitive capacity. Moreover, this precocious link emerges from a broader template that initially encompasses vocalizations of human and non-human primates, but is rapidly tuned specifically to human vocalizations. In this talk, I’ll focus on the powerful contributions of both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ as infants discover increasingly precise links between language and cognition, and use them to learn about their world.

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Simon E. Fisher, Max Planck Institute (Njimegen) and Donders Brain and Language Institute
A molecular genetic perspective on speech and language
Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 3:30 pm

The rise of molecular technologies has yielded exciting new routes for studying the biological foundations of language. In particular, researchers have begun to identify genes implicated in neurodevelopmental disorders that disrupt speech and language skills. My talk will illustrate how such work can provide powerful entry points into critical neural pathways, using FOXP2 as an example. Rare mutations of this gene cause problems with learning to sequence mouth movements during speech, accompanied by wide-ranging deficits in language production and comprehension. FOXP2 encodes a regulatory protein, a hub in a network of other genes, several of which have also been associated with language-related impairments. Versions of FOXP2 are found in similar form in many vertebrate species; indeed, studies of animals and birds suggest it has conserved roles in the development and plasticity of certain sets of neural circuits. Thus, the contributions of this gene to human speech and language involve modifications of evolutionarily ancient functions. Searches for additional language-related genes are underway, taking advantage of dramatic advances in genomic methods. Overall, the FOXP2 story illustrates the value of an interdisciplinary approach for unravelling the complicated connections between genes, neurons, brain circuits and language.

Register now!