Language Acquisition

Language Acquisition

Language Acquisition Research Group

Our Research

Our research team investigates how children from 2- to 6-years-old acquire grammatical structures, and how they interpret sentences with quantifiers such as every and only, and ones with logical connectives such as if, … then, and, and or. Much of our research has focused on children’s understanding of sentence that contain combinations of these words in different languages. Members of our team have been investigating language acquisition in English, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Turkish.

We also study children’s understanding of sentences with complex structures. For example, we are interested in whether children know that sometimes a pronoun, such as he, can sometimes pick out the same individual as a name, but at other times cannot. As an example, adults know that the pronoun he can refer to Spot in the sentence “Spot said that he brushed Big Bird.” Adults also know that the pronoun he cannot refer to Spot in the sentence “It was Spot that he brushed.” This contrast is interesting because Spot precedes the pronoun he in both sentences, so a comprehension strategy based on linear order would fail to explain the contrast. In view of contrasts like this one, linguists have proposed that children’s language understanding is based on hierarchical structure, and not on linear order. Our experiments with children are designed to evaluate hypotheses such as the ‘structure-dependence’ of children’s grammars.

Some members of our group are interested in how children with specific language impairment acquire language. We have completed a project investigating the development of negative sentences, and we plan to continue this work.

Our investigations of children's linguistic knowledge employ several kinds of experimental techniques. But our experiments are always embedded in games that are fun for children. We often use a task called the Truth Value Judgment Task. This task allows us to investigate the sentences that children judge to be true, and those they judge to be false. Based on these judgments, we infer which meanings can and cannot be assigned to different sentence structures. The task requires two experimenters. One experimenter acts out stories in front of the child and a puppet, who is played by the second experimenter. After each story, the puppet says what it thinks happened in the story. The child’s task is to tell the puppet if what he said was true or false. In this way, children do not feel that they are being tested, and they enjoy telling the puppet “what really happened” when the puppet’s sentences are judged by the child to be false. In some of our experiments, the situations we set up target a particular, and often complex, sentence structures, ones that children do not produce in their everyday speech. Eliciting complex sentence structures from children enables us to provide a more accurate picture of children’s emerging grammatical competence.  

Macquarie University is home to a unique brain imaging system, called MEG, which is specially designed for children. Our team draws on the brain imaging expertise of Associate Professor Blake Johnson.

We have a lively team of research students, Postdoctoral fellows and collaborators, and we welcome new students who are interested in joining us on this and other related projects on the acquisition of syntax and semantics. Our current students work on English, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, but we welcome students who speak other languages.

   If you would like your child to participate in one of our studies, please email us at We would love to hear from you. You might also consider joining Neuronauts. You can get an idea of some of our experiments by viewing some of the videos in our video archive.

Video Archive


Academic Staff

  • Professor Stephen Crain works on the acquisition of logic. His current projects investigate children's acquisition of English, Chinese and Japanese.
  • A/Prof Rosalind Thornton focuses on the acquisition of syntax and semantics. Current projects include children’s negative sentences, sentences with various kinds of ellipsis, and scope phenomena.
  • Dr. Iain Giblin studies the acquisition of syntax, including children’s production and comprehension of pronouns and quantifiers. Iain also has a PhD in music, and is exploring the relationship between language and music.
  • Dr. Weiyi Ma is a CCD Postdoc. He studies the acquisition of argument structure, and the relationship between music and academic development.
  • Dr. Loes Koring is a CCD Postdoc. Loes uses both behavioral techniques and eyetracking to study children’s acquisition of argument structure.
  • Dr. Lyn Tieu is a CCD Postdoc. Lyn studies children’s acquisition of semantics, including children’s knowledge of both the literal meaning of sentences and pragmatic inferences.

Research Support Staff

  • Nichola Shelton is our lab coordinator. Nichola has a Master’s Degree in Speech Pathology and is interested in language development in both typically-developing children and children with language disorders.

PhD Research Students

  • Cory Bill – Cory is studying children's understanding of sentence meanings that are inferred/implied rather than being explicitly stated.
  • Hui-ching Chen – Hui-ching is studying the relative importance of prosody and syntax in focus structures in Mandarin, German and English.
  • David Huang – David is studying Mandarin-speaking children’s acquisition of the disjunction in permission structures like ‘John is allowed to purchase books or equipment’. 
  • Na Gao – Na is studying Mandarin-speaking children’s acquisition of disjunction in complex structures, including ones with ellipsis.
  • Judith O’Byrne – Judith’s thesis research looks at English verb tense system, with a special emphasis on the ways English expresses information about the future.
  • Kelly Rombough – Kelly’s thesis focuses on grammatical knowledge in children with Specific Language Impairment, including various kinds  of questions.


  • A/Prof Peng Zhou relocated to Tsinghua University in Beijing, after 9 years at Macquarie University. He is a longtime collaborator with Stephen Crain, and works on logical expressions in the acquisition of Chinese and English.
  • Associate Professor Drew Khlentzos is a logician, and offers his expertise to our projects on language and logic.  
  • Professor Maria Teresa Guasti teaches at the University of Milan-Bicocca, in Milan. Teresa works on language acquisition in typically-developing children as well as children with specific language impairment (SLI), bilingual children and bilingual children with SLI.
  • A/Prof Hirohisa Kiguchi - Hirohisa Kiguchi teaches at Miyagi Gakuin Women's University in Japan. Kiguchi and Rozz have collaborated on a number of projects, including children's interpretation of pseudoclefts and clefts, and they now have a project underway looking at scope properties.

Previous CC Postdocs

  • Mike Iverson is now a postdoc in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Indiana.
  • Vincenzo Moscati teaches linguistics at the University of Siena.
  • Jacopo Romoli teaches at the University of Ulster.


  • Aijun Huang is Associate Professor teaching English and linguistics at the University of Suzhou.
  • Nobu Akagi teaches Japanese at Macquarie University
  • Shasha An works at Global LT-Shanghai as a language coordinator and tutor
  • Vasfiye Geckin is a Postdoc in Istanbul working on a European Commission project on children’s second language learning.
  • Katharina Genske is working as a speech pathologist in Germany.
  • Neha Khetrapal is a Postdoc at IHPC-A Star in Singapore, working on applications for autism.
  • Yi (Esther) Su teaches at Central South University in Changsha, China, studying language development in Chinese children with autism.
  • Min Liao (Maggie) is a Postdoc in the Aphasia and Neurolinguistics Lab at Northwestern University in Chicago.
  • Francesco-Alessi Ursini Francesco works as a lecturer at Stockholm University’s English department, and continues his research on the morpho-semantics of Spatial Prepositions.
  • Likan Zhang is at the Beijing Language and Culture University, as manager of the MEG brain research lab.

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