Language Acquisition and Sociolinguistics

Acquiring one's native language is a multifaceted and protracted process. This is reflected in our research in several ways: the focus is on early acquisition (e.g., children's language production in the first years of life) as well as on later stages of acquisition (e.g., youngsters' creative formation of new writing conventions in their chat language). We study children's speech as well as the development of their writing abilities.

The main research topic is how very young children learn to use the language they hear. This process actually starts before babies use conventional words and phrases. That is why we study babies' vocalizations from birth onwards, focusing on how they become more and more 'word-like'. Once they start using words, we analyze the phonological development (the sound and syllable patterns words consist of, stress and intonation, 'speech errors') and morphophonological development (for instance, how do they learn diminutives or plurals?), and syntactic development (e.g., how do they learn the basic word order of Dutch?). Moreover, we study how young children learn the meanings of words and how they know how to use these new words correctly?

A major area of research in language acquisition is the extent to which the language environment of the child provides enough information with which to learn language. A number of our studies investigate the relationship between children's productions and the language they hear. At present we have an outspoken interest in language acquisition in children with different degrees of hearing: normally hearing children's language acquisition is compared with hearing impaired children with a conventional hearing aid and deaf children with 'received hearing' due to cochlear implantation.

For older youth, the focus shifts to adolescent writing practices in informal computer-mediated communication (CMC) and the social correlates of linguistic and typographic variation patterns.

Our basic methodological approach is empirical: in most studies we collect spontaneous speech data of children interacting with their parents and peers. Those data are meticulously transcribed and coded using state-of-the-art technological tools. We also use psycholinguistic experiments in which we elicit language production under more controlled conditions. Finally, for the research on adolescent online writing, we collect spontaneous private CMC data.

Language Processing

Our research mainly focuses on the acquisition of Dutch as a first language. There is also a firm emphasis on crosslinguistic studies in which the acquisition of particular phenomena is studied in typologically diverse languages.

The focus in this module is on the nature of the mental representations and processes underpinning online language use in experienced language users, although their precursors in the acquisition process are also included in the study. Our primary interests concern reading and spelling.

In the domain of reading, our attention has mainly gone to the basic process that supports all higher-order reading processes, i.e., word recognition, although more recently we have also addressed issues of syntactic parsing in sentence processing. Three topics have dominated our research on word recognition:

  1. the role of a word's morphological structure, which is linked with the question whether morphological representations are activated by a postlexical process or by a 'blind' process at a prelexical level, whose task it is to identify all ortographic strings that are potential morphemes,
  2. the role of prelexical phonological recoding as an automatic, i.e., uncontrollable, process, achieving lexical access through a word's phonological representation,
  3. the organization of a bilingual's mental lexicon and the nature of its access processes (language-nonselective or language-selective).

An early precursor of reading achievement is the child's phonological awareness, a topic that has also resulted in a number of studies. In our spelling research we have focused on a peculiar property of the Dutch language, where descriptively quite simple morphographic spelling rules remain a source of spelling errors, even among highly educated people. Studies on the nature of the error patterns during the process of rule learning and at the stage of adequate rule knowledge have enabled us to identify a source of noise that interferes with rule application under conditions of limited working memory resources: the relative occurrence frequency of two homophonic inflectional variants.