Linguistic theory and language acquisition

Het Babylab van de Universiteit Utrecht

We investigate the formal and functional structure of natural languages in close connection with the acquisition of natural languages. Research into language structure is informed by the logical problem of language acquisition, while our research on language acquisition is informed by the formal representations and typology of linguistic theory.

Linguistic theory

At the level of linguistic theory our research focuses on the formal and functional properties of natural language at the four classical levels of representation, and  the interaction of these properties and language processing:

  • Phonology - word prosodic systems: representations for word stress and lexical tone, cross-linguistic perception of lexical tone and intonation, computational models for phonotactic learning, phonotactic and metrical cues for speech segmentation
  • Syntax - subject-verb inversion
  • Semantics - aspect, degree modifiers, universal quantification
  • Pragmatics - information structure, focus and topic marking, discourse coherence, scalar implicature

Language acquisition

In our research, we investigate the areas of first, bilingual and second language acquisition by comparing different mono- and multilingual settings:

  • first versus second language acquisition
  • early versus late second language acquisition
  • monolingual first language versus bilingual first language acquisition
  • normal versus impaired acquisition
Our primary goal is to disentangle the roles of innate learning mechanisms and language-specific input factors in acquisition processes, for which a cross-linguistic perspective is typically adopted.

Our research on language acquisition is strongly informed by linguistic theory, focussing on formal and functional structure of natural languages at the levels of phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics, as well as by linguistic typology. Topics reflecting our current research interests include:

First language acquisition

  • infants’ acquisition of word-prosody and sentence-prosody
  • word learning in infants as a function of infant-directed speech
  • prosodic focus and topic marking in children
  • scalar implicature calculation in young children
  • acquisition of adjectives and degree modifiers in pre-school children
  • word learning strategies as a function of speaker certainty in children
  • children’s interpretation of distributive universal quantification

Bilingual language acquisition

  • the development of speech perception in bilingual infants
  • the development of discourse coherence in bilingual children
  • specific indefinite objects in bilingual acquisition

Second language acquisition

  • information status and L2 prosody
  • the acquisition of Spanish subject-verb inversion by Dutch speakers
  • aspectual properties in Spanish L2

Impaired language acquisition and impaired populations

  • the development of discourse coherence in children with specific language impairment
  • the acquisition of adjectives in children with cochlear implants
  • the use of prosody and information structure in adults with autism


For investigating language acquisition in infants, children and adults, we use a range of experimental techniques, including the Headturn Preference Procedure (HPP), audiovisual habituation (e.g. switch procedure), eye tracking (visual world paradigm, preferential looking), Event Related Potentials (ERP), Frequency Following Responses (FFR), Artificial Language Learning (ALL), Truth Value Judgment tasks, etc.