Constructing discourse for a naïve interlocutor: about language and communication

27 May 2024 03.30 PM - 05.00 PM SHHK Conference Room (05-57) Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public

In the early 1960s, Noam Chomsky changed the landscape of child language acquisition research. He argued that language cannot be learned from the speech community surrounding the child, and that the child was likely born with an innate language acquisition device. As a result, the child should need only minimal input to acquire its first language. His proposal was based partly on the fact that children seem to acquire most of their language within a remarkably short amount of time (more or less by age four), and on the fact that children’s output did not seem to mirror parental input.

Since then, a vast quantity of studies have been published on child language acquisition and many have been focused on these early years of acquisition. But language acquisition is by no means completed at 4-years, even if the basic building blocks are in place by that time. Language acquisition continues well into the early teens. And even though it often does indeed look effortless, and needing very little input, there are functions of language for which the child needs a very good understanding of their interlocutor(s), and for which knowing linguistic forms only will not suffice.

In this presentation, I will talk about one such later acquisition, i.e., learning how to connect utterances into coherent and cohesive discourse. I will present some data that we published a while ago now with Dr Maya Hickmann. I will show how it takes children up to at least 7 years of age, to start referring to person appropriately, and apart from our own explanations of the data, I will discuss how another important acquisitionist, Mike Tomasello, explains why it might take children this long to get this part of language acquisition right.

Dr Henriette Hendriks is Professor of Language Acquisition and Cognition at the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge and currently visiting professor of CRADLE. Her main research area is cognitive linguistics, and she researches the relationship between language and cognition through work in child first and adult second language acquisition.

Dr Hendriks studied Sinology at Leiden University, and then started her career at the Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. In 1998 she moved to the University of Cambridge, where she has been lecturing and researching first and second language acquisition, discourse analysis, and linguistic relativity. During her time in Cambridge, she was PI on the EF-Cambridge Research Unit grant, Co-I on a large number of other grants (European and UK based). Currently she is PI and Deputy Director of the Centre for Lifelong Learning and Individualised Cognition (CLIC).

Major research questions deal with ways in which languages differ in their expression of concepts (person, time, space, causality), and how this impacts on first and second language acquisition. More recently, this has led to research questions concerning the relationship between cognitive flexibility and language acquisition and multilingualism.