“Language acquisition in young children is an extremely enigmatic process. I want to better understand how language development builds on and is driven by other cognitive skills."

Frank Wijnen is Professor of psycholinguistics at the Department of Languages, Literature and Communication, Faculty of Humanities.


How does a young child learn a language?

Frank Wijnen is a psycholinguist with a special interest in language acquisition and developmental disorders. The work in his group revolves around the (neuro) cognitive foundation of the acquisition of language in very young children. The question he is most interested in is how general cognitive mechanisms and processes (attention, learning, memory) contribute to the emergence of the categories and rules of grammar and phonology (sound structure). By addressing this question, we can gain a deeper understanding of how language, as a unique product of the human mind, works and builds on other cognitive abilities.


Focus on statistical learning

One of the mechanisms that the Wijnen group takes a close look at is statistical learning, the process by which organisms extract statistical patterns from sequences of stimuli arranged in time or space. Previous research has shown that statistical learning plays a role in the construction of the phonological system and grammar. The experiments in Wijnen’s group focus on the question of how children move from detecting and storing stimulus-related patterns to generalization and understanding abstract rules. The group also looks at delayed and disturbed language acquisition, especially in children with an increased risk of dyslexia and children with a specific language disorder. The hypothesis here is that statistical learning does not function well in these populations. This work has recently led to a new line of research that attempts to predict later dyslexia based on early language acquisition patterns.