Vici grant for Aoju Chen: How do children learn native prosody?

Prof. dr. Aoju Chen. Foto: Ivar Pel
Prof. Aoju Chen. Photo: Ivar Pel

How do children learn the intonation, the rhythm and the accent – in other words, the prosody – of their native language? This is the central question in Prof. Dr Aoju Chen. With the Vici grant of the NWO she’ll be able to research prosodic development for the coming years. The grant is one of the highest personal scientific grants in the Netherlands.

An unborn child begins to hear and process sounds at 27 weeks of pregnancy. Although the speech heard in the womb is muffled, its prosodic properties (e.g. intonation, rhythm), come through the womb intact.

Prosody lies at the base of language development and the development of the bond between mother and child.

First contact between the unborn child and the mother

Prosody is thus the first contact that an unborn child has with language, the mother and the outside world. It is also at the basis of language development and development of mother-child attachment. It is therefore essential to research prosodic development.

I am very happy with the Vici grant. The proposed research is not only important but also urgent. It must be done now. Because knowledge of the question ‘how children develop prosodic competence so early’ can lead us to the mechanisms at the very heart of language development.

Native prosody

Chen’s project will be the first to investigate how children learn native prosody, in particular, language-specific use of prosody in grouping words into meaningful units in a sentence and fundamental communicative functions of prosody, during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first three years of life.

Een moeder en twee kleine kinderen met een tablet

Interdisciplinary and cross-linguistic approach

In this research, Chen will adopt an original interdisciplinary and cross-linguistic approach to study the role of biologically motivated innate mechanisms, input-based learning mechanisms in both the prenatal and postnatal period, and the role of gestures in the postnatal prosodic development.

Improving language development

“The knowledge we obtain in the project is also urgently needed to provide preterm newborns with care that facilitates language development, and to improve language and social ability of children with autism or at risk of autism,” Chen adds. “This research brings humanities and medical science closer together to tackle new challenging questions.”

Vici grant

The Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) has granted ten Vici grants to researchers of the Utrecht University and the UMC Utrecht. Each researcher receives 1.5 million euros for their research. Experienced researchers in the Netherlands can apply for this grant. Not only is it honourable for researchers to receive this grant, it also enables them to develop their own innovative line of research and compose a research group