Born to Learn Language
Janet Werker knows how to make young children listen. Which is truly extraordinary considering that the boys and girls she studies are too young to walk or talk.
As the new Canada Research Chair in Psychology at the University of British Columbia, Werker will build on two decades of cutting-edge research during which she has precisely documented the first mental steps in normal language learning. Her goal is to use this knowledge for the early detection of children at risk for language difficulties. And considering her experience-in documenting the earliest stages of language learning, this world-leading psychologist has achieved several research firsts-the project is in good hands.
In the early 1980s, Werker demonstrated that infants in their first months of life can already distinguish between similar-sounding consonants and vowels. She also demonstrated that this ability is universal: babies can distinguish these differences in any language.
In the 1990s, Werker extended this research to toddlers and the initial stages of word learning. Her research overturned earlier theories of word learning by demonstrating that one-year-olds avoid the fine phonetic detail of new words in order to better focus on the overall sound of the words.
In collaboration with an international team of colleagues, Werker is also turning her attention to language development in bilingual and multilingual children. Her preliminary research in this field has produced intriguing results, for it suggests that listening experience early in life, even in utero, influences the way infants perceive language.
What else does Werker plan to do with her research findings? She's using this basic knowledge of early language learning to develop methods for early identification of language disorders. She's also testing word learning and speech perception in premature infants and those genetically at risk for delayed language development.