The Role and Function of Input in Language Acquisition – talk Carla Hudson Kam gave last week in the Faculty of Education Research Week 2014

Last week, I had the pleasure of giving a short talk to people in the Faculty of Education here at UBC as part of their Research Week 2014. I was part of a panel of Canada Research Chairs invited to speak to professors and students about my research. In particular, we were asked to focus on what our research had to say that was of relevance for teacher training and practice. It was a really interesting exercise for me, thinking about my work from a more practical perspective. I only had 15 minutes, so it had to be somewhat direct, and without much of the detail I would usually include in a talk. I decided to give them a whirlwind tour of my work I’ve been involved in, and linked studies together in rather non-traditional ways. Instead of linking work by specific research questions, I linked it by messages that were relevant to education/educators.

The title of the talk was “The Role and Function of Input in Language Acquisition”. It was not really a description of what I was going to tell them, rather, how I see all of my work being linked. It is the tie that binds all of my work together. I know that the various projects I have and continue to work on might seem scattered to an outside observer. To my mind, that is largely due to the way we write papers – self-contained units that outline a small question or issue. My work is linked by the theme that was the title of my talk. I then broke it down into three section, each of which contained a message for the educators. But really, these are things that I have learned, ways my thinking has changed, that I thought were worth sharing.

Each section had a question, and a take home message attached to it. The first set of findings I talked about were bound together by the question How do children (and adults) learn language? I get at this question by examining the relationship between input and output, with the idea that understanding the function from one to the other tells us something about the mechanisms, or the ‘how’. Here I talked about the work on the learning of variation, as well as a lot of work conducted by Amy Finn. The take home message here was that children are not just little adults, or adults missing some cognitive ‘piece’ or ability. While it may make sense to discuss them that way, if we want to understand learning, we have to understand that even in a system that is ‘missing’ some ability, the system will still function, just differently, and that that difference will not necessarily be a simple mapping to the abilities that the system does have available. Think of it more like a recipe with a replacement ingredient than a puzzle with a missing piece.

The second body of work (or bodies) was introduced by the question How do children learn about language? It is work directed at understanding the nature of the input itself/directly expanding how we might think about input. In the field of language acquisition we often think of input just in terms of the speech the child hears. But learning takes place in a rich communicative environment, and we need to consider that more carefully. Here, I made the point, rather counter-intuitively, that just because there is other input available (e.g., gesture) doesn’t mean it will be used. I also pointed out that context can actually impede learning at times. Here, I was referring mostly to the work by Tim Beyer on AAE-speaking children’s interpretation of SAE. We can’t just assume that providing extra information will help children – they may not be ready or able to use it. And even when they do, it may not be scaffolding acquisition in the ways we assume.

The third section of the talk was focused on the question of ‘How children learn from language?” There, I talked about some new work I am just starting to do (in collaboration with Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins over in Philosophy) on explanations and the development of explanatory preferences. There, the message was just that children make generalizations over the patterns they hear, including some very abstract ones, and that we should be mindful of this when talking to children. Or as I put it “we need to think more critically about the ways we talk about things, and how they can impact children’s generalizations about knowledge”.

Carla Hudson Kam talking at NIU on Apr 30: Input, ‘intake’, and the adult language learner

I’m visiting Northern Illinois University this week, as part of serving as a mentor in their PI Academy. I’ll be working with Karen Lichtman in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. I’m looking forward to the visit, and to being part of this really innovative program.

As part of my involvement, I’ll be giving a talk on some of my work. I’ve chosen to talk about work most related to Karen’s own (really interesting!) research program. Which means talking about work I’ve never talked about before (although thankfully, Amy Finn, the former student who did much of the work, has). It’s especially exciting to me because I’m bringing together work by 2 PhD students at 2 different universities, in addition to work done by 2 undergraduates, again, from both UC Berkeley and UBC. Given the way we write papers, things can appear as a bunch of unrelated projects, when really there is a very programmatic thread underlying them all, and it’s been fun to string that thread through the studies while working on the talk.

The talk is entitled “Input, ‘intake’, and the adult language learner”.

Here’s the abstract: Differences in outcomes between child and adult language learners have long been noted – in particular, the fact that people who start learning a language as children usually reach a higher level of proficiency in the language than those who start learning later in life. A variety of explanations for this discrepancy in outcomes have been proposed, ranging from differences in neural plasticity to differences in the levels of personal identification with the new and old cultures, most of which find some support in the data. One factor that has received relatively less attention is input differences, the idea that children and adults tend to get very different linguistic input. People have pointed out, for instance, that the context or environment in which adults versus children learn obviously will affect their input, which then has the potential to affect learning outcomes. But there is another aspect to input, namely, how learners engage with and process the input they receive, that can be described as affecting their intake, not just their input. These are things internal to the learner, like the nature and strength of prior knowledge and maturationally controlled cognitive/brain changes. In this talk, I will present data from several studies using miniature artificial language methods demonstrating how learning outcomes for adult learners are affected by their intake, and discuss how these intake effects are related to maturation and so age of acquisition.

Macaela MacWilliams presenting at MURC UBC

Macaela MacWilliams will be presenting a poster entitled “Input effect in the sensitive period for language acquisition” at the Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC) here at UBC this upcoming Saturday, March 22, 2014.

It’s a project she worked on as part of her NSERC Undergraduate Research Award last summer. The basic idea behind the project is to see if we can improve adult L2 learning outcomes by manipulating their input such that they learn more like infants do – sound patterns first, meaning later. I don’t want to give away too many of the details, as we will likely be submitting this to our favorite acquisition conference soon…

“The adolescent peak and sound change”: paper being presented by PhD student Emily Sadlier-Brown at CWSL2014

Emily Sadlier-Brown will be presenting a paper entitled “The Adolescent Peak and Sound Change” at the inaugural Cascadia Workshop in Sociolinguistics at the University of Victoria tomorrow, March 1, at 4:15 pm. It’ll be in HHB 116. The paper covers some results of a computational model of a change in progress. It’s work done with Scott Mackie, another PhD student in the department, and me (Carla Hudson Kam).

“Individual-level constraints vs. coordination problems as pressures on emerging languages” Carla Hudson Kam’s poster at the Nijmegen Lectures 2014 Poster Session

Carla Hudson Kam will be presenting a poster entitled “Individual-level constraints vs. coordination problems as pressures on emerging languages” (co-authored with Whitney Goodrich Smith and Alexis Black) at the Nijmegen Lectures 2014 Poster Session on Tuesday January 28th from 16:30-18:00 at the MPI in Nijmegen.

This year’s Nijmegen Lectures are on the evolution of language, culture, and cognition, given by Russell Gray of the University of Auckland. It looks to be a great few days of talks and discussions.

Our poster discusses data from several papers (published and in prep) in the context of what they mean for a) the development of the use of space in emerging signed languages and b) how to think about the forces involved in language emergence more broadly. This work is supported by SSHRC.

If you would like a copy of the poster, just email me at

New study up and running: Parent participants needed!

The Language and Learning Lab at the University of British Columbia is looking for parents of children aged 0-36 months of age to participate in an internet survey regarding book reading. The survey takes approximately 10-15 minutes. If you are interested in participating, please click here.

(Feel free to pass this message along to parent friends.)

“The role of memory and representations in statistical learning” Alexis Black’s poster at the ASA Annual Meeting in SF

Alexis Black will be presenting a poster entitled “The role of memory and representations in statistical learning” at the 166th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Francisco this Friday, December 6th.

It’s in poster session 5aSCc (Speech Analysis), room Plaza A, 8am -12 pm.

It’s the first experiment from her dissertation work, looking at what, exactly, people extract in SL word learning studies. We compare performance for speech streams that contain native versus non-native (and semi-native) speech sounds on several measures of segmentation. Want to know more? Go see the poster! Or email her for a copy (

Just published: Learning language with the wrong neural scaffolding: the cost of neural commitment to sounds.

I’m excited to finally be able to announce a publication on the blog! It’s a paper entitled “Learning language with the wrong neural scaffolding: the cost of neural commitment to sounds” that just came out in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. It’s part of a special issue on sensitive periods in development. So happy to see this work finally come out. Congratulations to first author Amy Finn!

It’s my first foray into open access publishing, and it was a great experience.

Abstract is here: Does tuning to one’s native language explain the “sensitive period” for language learning? We explore the idea that tuning to (or becoming more selective for) the properties of one’s native-language could result in being less open (or plastic) for tuning to the properties of a new language. To explore how this might lead to the sensitive period for grammar learning, we ask if tuning to an earlier-learned aspect of language (sound structure) has an impact on the neural representation of a later-learned aspect (grammar). English-speaking adults learned one of two miniature artificial languages (MALs) over 4 days in the lab. Compared to English, both languages had novel grammar, but only one was comprised of novel sounds. After learning a language, participants were scanned while judging the grammaticality of sentences. Judgments were performed for the newly learned language and English. Learners of the similar-sounds language recruited regions that overlapped more with English. Learners of the distinct-sounds language, however, recruited the Superior Temporal Gyrus (STG) to a greater extent, which was coactive with the Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG). Across learners, recruitment of IFG (but not STG) predicted both learning success in tests conducted prior to the scan and grammatical judgment ability during the scan. Data suggest that adults’ difficulty learning language, especially grammar, could be due, at least in part, to the neural commitments they have made to the lower level linguistic components of their native language.”

Cog Sci 2013

There looks to be lots of really interesting work being presented at CogSci2013 in Berlin this weekend.

Our lab is being represented by Sarah Wilson (a former Berkeley PhD student), who is presenting on Friday, August 2, at 4:30 pm, in the Language Acquisition 1 session.

“Acquisition of phrase structure in an artificial visual grammar”. As promised, we doubled the data, so the talk will be a little different than the proceedings paper.