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Conference Information

Full Title: First Language Acquisition in the Languages of the World: Differences and Similarities

Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Start Date: 10-Sep-2017 - 13-Sep-2017
Contact: Sabine Stoll
Meeting Email: click here to access email
Meeting Description: This session is planned as a workshop at the 50th Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europea (SLE), which will take place in Zürich, 10-13 September 2017.

Children face a myriad of challenges when learning their first language(s), ranging from extracting meaningful units out of a noisy speech stream, attaching labels to changing referents and mastering the quirks of syntax and morphology inherent to the over 7000 languages spoken in the world today. A fundamental question in first language acquisition is whether the resources and the strategies used by children learning language are shared across languages, or whether they are language-specific.

General properties of the input seem to be available to all children regardless of the target language. For instance, other things being equal, more frequent linguistic units will feature in children’s repertoire earlier (Ambridge et al. 2015). Conditional frequency of the arrangement of units - i.e., which elements follow or precede others - for word segmentation (Pelucchi, Hay & Saffran 2009) as well as distributional properties of linguistic units (Hills 2013) seem to have a similarly broad scope. In addition to the statistical properties of the input, species-wide behaviors, like the tendency to interpret pointing gestures as a communicative act, the drive towards cooperative communication and innate perceptual biases constitute the best generalizations in the field of first language acquisition.

In addition to these general strategies, individual languages might provide more salient pathways to the acquisition of specific features. Word order cues, for instance, might be more reliable for specific tasks in some languages than in others, e.g. when determining agency or when learning properties of objects. Affixation preference (Gervain and Erra 2012) and stress allocation (Tyler and Cutler 2009) might bias the attention towards one particular word edge.

This divide is, however, debatable. A considerable amount of the research aimed at capturing universal learning strategies has been conducted in standard European languages (and most saliently, English) and some of the mechanisms that are deemed to be language-specific might be artefacts stemming from the lack of a comparative perspective on first language acquisition and data sparsity.


Ambridge, B., Kidd, E., Rowland, C. F., & Theakston, A. L. (2015). The ubiquity of frequency effects in first language acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 42(02), 239-273.
Gervain, J., & Erra, R. G. (2012). The statistical signature of morphosyntax: A study of Hungarian and Italian infant-directed speech. Cognition, 125(2), 263-287.
Hills, T. (2013). The company that words keep: comparing the statistical structure of child-versus adult-directed language. Journal of Child Language, 40(03), 586-604.

Pelucchi, B., Hay, J. F., & Saffran, J. R. (2009). Statistical learning in a natural language by 8-month-old infants. Child Development, 80(3), 674-685.
Tyler, M. D., & Cutler, A. (2009). Cross-language differences in cue use for speech segmentation. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 126(1), 367-376.
Linguistic Subfield: Cognitive Science; General Linguistics; Language Acquisition; Psycholinguistics
LL Issue: 27.4169

This is a session of the following meeting:
50th Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea

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