I am a lecturer in linguistics and language development and my research revolves around the following questions;
- What is language?
- How do we acquire it?
- How do we assess it?
- Why are some people better at language than others?
1. What is Language?
I believe that the basic linguistic unit is the ‘construction’, which is an arbitrary pairing of form and meaning (this is basically Saussure’s conception of the sign). Words are constructions, idioms are constructions, and syntactic structures are also constructions. This view of language provides a great explanation for sentences such as ‘she sneezed the napkin off the table’ (Arnon). To my mind, the only possible way we can arrive at the right interpretation of this sentence (that the sneezing propels the napkin off the table) is to infer this meaning from the construction itself (i.e. when you have the frame Subject + Verb + Object + Prepositional Phrase, the verb implies some kind of movement). This indicates that syntactic constructions, as well as words, have meanings.
I have used construction grammar approaches to training language-impaired children to use the passive. A more recent study (under review) taught two grammatical constructions to school age children in order to investigate individual differences in construction-learning.
2. How do we acquire it?
I am interested in how we can create ideal conditions for language learning. My PhD investigated whether we learn words better in a massed condition or spaced condition, represented by the following graphic
MASSED CONDITION: x x x x x x
SPACED CONDITION: x x x x x x
Both conditions have the same number of presentations, but the spaced condition has larger gaps between episodes. I found that training in the spaced condition was far more effective for lexical learning. I strongly advocate the benefits of spaced learning to my students, though there is also contradictory evidence suggesting that for some domains, e.g. articulating sounds, massed training may be better.
More recently, I have become interested in knowledge of ‘collocations‘ (words which go together) is children acquiring English as a Second Language (EL2). I think collocations are fascinating because they can provide an insight into the balance between ‘holistic’ processes (using pre-formed chunks), and ‘analytic’ processes (breaking down chunks into smaller units and parsing them for syntactic structure). The study was originally motivated by the possibility of using collocational knowledge to determine second language exposure, which in turn may help to diagnose language difficulty in these children. The findings were much richer and more surprising than we’d imagined!
I am interested in implicit learning mechanisms, and the interplay between implicit and explicit learning in language development. This is the theme of a forthcoming grant application to the ESRC. I am also interested in how we can create linguistically rich environments to facilitate language-learning. I am currently writing a grant on this theme.
3. How do we assess it?
I have published a number of papers on sentence repetition as a method for studying language abilities. I am intrigued by this paradigm because, while it superficially appears to be a test of short term memory recall, it is remarkably sensitive to an individual’s overall language level. My findings suggest that this task taps underlying linguistic representations in long-term memory because short-term memory is too limited to recall sentences above a certain length. This echoes the foundational work of Potter and Lombardi who proposed that sentence repetition actually involves ‘reconstructing’ the sentence from representations in Long-Term Memory.
I have also conducted a recent study trialling a novel assessment of collocational knowledge (above). While this study investigated second-language learners, it would be extremely interesting to expand this to clinical populations such as Specific Language Impairment and Autism.
4. Why are some people better at language than others?
This is actually a real conundrum and there are no easy answers. Many language researchers from strong psychology backgrounds have identified deficient processing mechanisms, e.g.poor phonological short-term memory, but for various reasons, I am sceptical about this approach. I believe that individual variation in language abilities results in different language-LEARNING abilities.
I addressed this issue in a recent study looking at the relationship between language-learning and ‘static’ language abilities, i.e. abilities measured at a particular point in time which assume no learning. The study found a strong link between the ability to learn a novel construction and performance on static language assessments.
5. Other research
In addition to these central topics, I have conducted research into language and gesture, language in autism, and bilingual cognition. Most of my work on autism has been with children, investigating how autism overlaps with childhood language impairment. However, I am also interested in how autistic cognition impacts on language processing in general, ruling out the possibility of overlap with language impairments. For example, discourse impairments in autism should impact on phenomena which lie at the interface between syntax and discourse. I am planning to explore this topic in a forthcoming study.
I am becoming increasingly interested in second-language learning, having recently submitted a paper on this topic (see above discussion of collocations), and having co-supervised a number of PhD dissertations on this area (with Martha Young-Scholten).