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Connor MayerConnor Mayer, UCI language science assistant professor, and Megha Sundara, UCLA linguistics professor and chair, have received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study infant language acquisition.

Megha Sundara"This project is about determining when English- and Spanish-learning infants become sensitive to the sequencing of consonants and vowels in their native language,” says Mayer. “For example, English words can begin with ‘st’ - as in ‘state’ or ‘stamp’ - while Spanish words cannot.”

The researchers will use experimental findings from studies on infants to evaluate predictions made by computational models that represent different hypotheses about how infants learn language. This comparison will provide insight into the specific mechanisms used by infants. In addition, uncovering the detailed timeline of when infants tune into sound sequencing restrictions will enable a better understanding of the roots of the difficulties some children with communication disorders have in learning sound sequencing.

A secondary outcome of this project is the greater inclusion of Spanish-speaking populations in developmental research, says Mayer, which helps fill a critical gap given the changing demographics in the U.S.

“In recent years, many computational models have been proposed to explain how infants learn language,” says Sundara. “Multiple model architectures typically achieve similar levels of success when benchmarked against the performance of adult speakers. In this project, computational models will be evaluated directly against infant behavior in order to provide additional criteria for distinguishing between them.”

The researchers will use their findings to evaluate whether infants’ knowledge of sound sequencing restrictions in their native language can be supported by the output of different computational models of word segmentation. In addition to providing a detailed timeline of the acquisition of sound sequencing restrictions and a better understanding of the developmental mechanisms used by infants, this project will also serve as a template for future studies that aim to compare computational models directly against infant behavior.

Award funding for the project totals $550,000 over four years and includes $122,202 for UCI.

pictured top to bottom: Connor Mayer, UCI language science assistant professor. Megha Sundara, UCLA linguistics professor and chair studies how infants learn to speak and understand language.


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