Project Descriptions: Language Acquisition

Effects of variable input on word learning and word recognition in infants

Collaborative Research Centre (SFB 1287): Limits of Variability in Language: Cognitive, Grammatical, and Social Aspects

Language is highly variable. Individuals can utter quite diverse linguistic structures and are able to assign different meanings to them. However, variability has its limits. It is exactly these limits that the Collaborative Research Centre "Limits of Variability in Language: Cognitive, Grammatical, and Social Aspects" will investigate. The notion variability is conceived of as a space of potential – partly unconscious – linguistic decisions, which are available to an individual or a speaker community. Limits surface in cases when specific linguistic behaviour occurs relatively consistently, even across languages and language communities. The activities of the SFB will gain new insights into the structure of the language system.

Project coordination: Isabell Wartenburger
Principal investigators: Barbara Höhle, Adamantios Gafos (project C03)
Funding source:German Research Foundation, DFG
Funding period: 2017 – 2021
Project website:

PredictAble: Understanding and predicting developmental language abilities and disorders in multilingual Europe

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Innovative Training Network (ITN)

The acquisition of spoken and written language is one of the most important developmental steps in children, but not all acquire these capacities easily. Estimates suggest that about 6 to 8% of children suffer from Specific Language Impairment (SLI), a disorder in language development with no known cause such as general cognitive delay, hearing impairment, brain damage or deprived social circumstances

Furthermore, 3 to 10% of children suffer from Developmental Dyslexia (DD), a specific disorder in acquiring fluent reading and writing skills. Traditionally behavioural pencil-and-paper tasks have been used to diagnose children with language-related problems, but these can hardly be reliably applied before the age of 3 years. Moreover, so far research on language related disorders has mainly focused on monolingual children, despite the majority of Europeans are bilingual.

Aims of the project
The main goal is to identify individual performance patterns in order to predict and diagnose developmental language disorders such as SLI and DD as early as possible.
Further, we seek to:

  • Enhance the understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie developmental disorders, like SLI and DD
  • Establish early neural and cognitive risk markers that are applicable to mono- and multilingual children
    provide knowledge for well-targeted treatment approaches for children at risk
  • optimize recently developed technologies in the area of developmental cognitive neuroscience

Project coordination: Barbara Höhle
Principal investigators: Barbara Höhle, Isabell Wartenburger, Aude Noiray (University of Potsdam); Thierry Nazzi, Judit Gervain (University Paris Descartes, France); Paavo Leppänen, Jarmo Hämäläinen (University of Jyväskylä, Finland); Nuria Sebastian-Gallés, Luca Bonatti (University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona Spain); Christoph Schmitz (NIRx Medizintechnik GmbH, Berlin, Germany)
Funding source:Horizon 2020 project of the EU
Funding period: 2015 – 2019

The sensitive period for associative learning of non-adjacent dependencies in verbal and non-verbal material

Research Unit 2253: Crossing the borders: The interplay of language, cognition, and the brain in early human development

To be able to effortlessly learn their native language within just a few years, young children must be equipped with remarkable language learning abilities. The ability to extract and generalize abstract rules between non-adjacent elements in predictive sequences is present very early in life. Already 3- to 4-month-old infants can discriminate grammatical and ungrammatical dependencies following only brief exposure. In contrast, adults only showed grammar learning when they performed an explicit grammaticality judgment task, but not under passive listening. This leads to the question of the differences between infant and adult learning. It has been proposed that the delayed maturation of the prefrontal cortex, supporting cognitive control in the adult brain but not yet fully functional in early development, is a major determinant of infant compared to adult learning. Thus, in infants, associative learning rooted in temporal cortices may work, unsupervised by cognitive control, more effectively than in adults.
We will determine when during children’s first three years of life the switch from associative to more controlled learning occurs. Moreover, we will reveal whether the learning of non-adjacent dependencies follows the same trajectories in the linguistic (Italian as non-native language) and non-linguistic (tone sequences) domain. Parallel findings in both domains as a function of age would suggest a domain-general change of the learning mechanism during development.

Project coordination: Barbara Höhle
Principal investigators: Barbara Höhle, Angela Friederici (MPI Leipzig) (project P1)
Funding source:German Research Foundation, DFG
Funding period: 2015 – 2018

Perceptual narrowing in speech and face recognition in infants

Research Unit 2253: Crossing the borders: The interplay of language, cognition, and the brain in early human development

Perceptual narrowing is characterized by a fast attunement of discriminatory abilities to specific sensory input that infants encounter in their daily life. This process corresponds to declining discrimination for stimuli not present or relevant in the environment of the infant. Perceptual narrowing has been studied especially for face and speech discrimination and indicated similar developmental trajectories. However, infants' face and speech processing has almost been studied separately. Therefore, the aim of the project is to investigate the perceptual narrowing during the first year of life in an interdisciplinary approach regarding the processing of visual and auditory modalities. Central research questions are whether the mechanisms of face and speech discrimination rely on a domain-general or on a domain-specific processing, and whether there are differences in conditions of modifying perceptual narrowing in speech and face recognition at an age in which perceptual narrowing seems to be set. Specially, we focus on the recognition of own-race vs. other-race faces, the discrimination of speech sounds, and the face and voice matches. Developmental changes will be measured with eye-tracking and ERPs to gain insights into whether the same mechanisms are involved in the processing of information in the different domains. To investigate these mechanisms we conduct two series of studies. The first series will focus on the timing and strength of perceptual narrowing of face and speech recognition in a longitudinal and cross-sectional study with infants between the ages of 6 and 9 months. The second series will focus on the feasibility of modifying the perceptual narrowing and its conditions at a later age (9 and 12 months).

Project coordination: Barbara Höhle
Principal investigators: Barbara Höhle, Gudrun Schwarzer (Gießen) (project P6)
Funding source:German Research Foundation, DFG
Funding period: 2015 – 2018

Acquisition of linguistic means of marking information structure in first language acquisition

Prosodic, syntactic, and lexical aspects

In this project we investigate how children acquire the means to structure information in utterances, i.e. how they use them in language production and how they interpret them in comprehension. Different aspects of the acquisition of information structure are studied crosslinguistically in German-, English-, and French-learning children. In addition to typically-developing children we will also include children with specific language impairments in our studies.

Investigators: Barbara Höhle, Flavia Adani
Collaborations: Kristza Szendrői (University College London), Judit Gervain (CNRS, Université Paris Descartes)
Funding: Project of the Collaborative Research Center 632: Information Structure

Processing syntactic dependencies in early language acquisition

Crosslinguistic investigations of sensitivity to subject-verb-agreement in German- and English-learning 2-year-old children

A central aspect in acquiring the grammatical properties of the native language is the identification and processing of syntactic dependencies. This project looks into the development of this capability in the domain of subject-verb-agreement in children with German or English as native language. These languages differ in their morpho-syntactic properties. First, German has a more complex verbal inflection system than English does. Second, the linear order of subject and verb in sentences is much more flexible in German than in English. Our investigations will shed light on how these language-specific differences affect the acquisition of subject-verb-agreement.

Investigators: Barbara Höhle, Melanie Soderstrom (University of Manitoba, Canada)

Processing of phonological information during word recognition in hearing-impaired children

In this project we look at differences between hearing-impaired and unimpaired children in the processing of segmental phonological information during word recognition. Using eye gaze measurements, we can investigate which features in the phonological form of a word are crucial in lexical access and how the hearing status might influence on how this information is weighed.

Investigators: Barbara Höhle, Nivedita Mani (Universität Göttingen), Ovidiu König (Universität Potsdam)

Early prosodic abilities in first language acquisition

The project – part of the DFG (German Research Foundation) Priority Programme 1234 – aims at the very early prosodic development in 6- and 8-month-old children focusing on phonological and acoustic correlates of prosodic boundaries. Cues for such boundaries are changes in pitch, lengthening of final syllables and pauses. Previous research has shown that infants are able to use prosodic information to segment the speech stream. Moreover, the specific constellation of these cues and their weighting by the hearer is subject to crosslinguistic variation.

We will investigate which prosodic cues are relevant for German-learning children and if and how the weighting is changing during linguistic development. In our studies children are presented with language samples with different natural and manipulated constallations of cues. For these perceptual experiments behavioural methods (HPP) as well as neurophysiological measures (EEG) will be used. Our studies will provide new insights into the interaction of basic perceptual mechanism the child is equipped with and their attunement to the specific features of the target language and will improve our understanding of the development of the neural mechanisms underlying prosodic competencies.

Investigators: Barbara Höhle, Hubert Truckenbrodt (ZAS Berlin), Isabell Wartenburger (University of Potsdam)
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)

Crosslinguistic investigations on the development of rhythmic preferences

Rhythmic information is one of the earliest cues infants use to bootstrap into the acquisition of lexical and syntactic properties of the target language. We know that infants acquire the specific rhythmic and other prosodic properties of their target language within the first months of life. Less is known about the interaction between general auditory biases and the specific acoustic properties of the target language. This project will compare early perceptual preferences of rhythmic patterns in German- and French-learning infants. Whereas German shows a stressed-based rhythm with a trochaic dominance on the level of lexical stress, French has a syllable-based rhythm with no lexical stress but phrase-final prominence due to final lengthening.

The aim of this project is twofold: First, we question the claim that the iambic/trochaic law applies independently of the properties of the native language by reassessing this law in monolingual German and French adults and infants. Second, we will expand our work on stress pattern preference, stress discrimination, and the application of the iambic/trochaic law to bilingual French-German adults and infants in order to evaluate the influence of a bilingual (French-German) environment on prosodic processing.

Investigators: Barbara Höhle, Thierry Nazzi (Université Paris Descartes)
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)

Acquisition of function words in L1 learners of German and Hebrew

At what age are children able to not only discriminate but correctly interpret function words such as determiners and prepositions. Crosslinguistically, what are similarities and differences?

Investigators: Barbara Höhle, Yarden Kedar (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)