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


Example Projects 

Acquisition and use of morphosyntax (language structure) in bilingualism

Michael Iverson

This research addresses issues such as how well adults can learn a second language, the advantages of learning a second language in childhood vs. adulthood, how bilinguals acquire a third language, and how a speaker’s first language can change upon learning additional languages (attrition). This research seeks to adapt traditional offline linguistic methodologies to neuroimaging techniques, with the goal of finding neurological correlates of established behavioural phenomena in bilingualism.

Acquisition of English tense by Mandarin-speaking children

Haiquan Huang

My PhD project is focused on the acquisition of English tense by Mandarin-speaking children in their first year’s post-migration to Australia. My project investigates 5-9 year old Mandarin children’s production and comprehension of English tense.

Acquisition of Semantics

Stephen Crain

Members of our group investigate children's acquisition of logical expressions in a range of languages, including English, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Turkish. More specifically, we investigate the time course in the acquisition of logical words such as 'or' and 'and' as well as how these words are interpreted in different sentence contexts in different languages. We are interested to know how children initially interpret sentences that contain combinations of logical expressions. Our studies focus both on linguistic and logical principles that are common to all human languages, and the parametric options that different human languages take. Our investigations are motivated by linguistic theory and by principles of language learnability. We are particularly interested in ways in which the linguistic structures of children differ from those of adult speakers in the same linguistic community.

Acquisition of Semantics - implied meaning in sentences

Cory Bill

This research focuses on elements of a sentence's meaning that are inferred/implied, rather than being explicitly stated. These meanings include (but are not limited to) things like 'presuppositions' and 'conversational implicatures'. The aim of this research is to learn more about the nature of these meanings, how they are processed in the brain, and how children come to acquire an understanding of them.

Acquisition of Semantics - logical expressions

Na Gao

My PhD project intends to identify 1) whether young Mandarin-speaking children can access internal linguistic structures that generate different meanings but are highly similar in surface structure; 2) whether young Mandarin-speaking children interpret expressions containing logical operators (e.g. universal quantifier “every”, disjunction “or”) in the same way as adults.

Acquisition of Semantics - modal expressions

Peng Zhou

Current projects investigate children’s acquisition of modal expressions (e.g., might, must) using the visual world paradigm of eye-tracking.

Acquisition of Syntax

Rosalind Thornton

Members of our group also investigate children’s knowledge of grammatical structure. We are interested in what aspects of grammatical knowledge children have in place early on in the course of acquisition and what aspects develop later. Our studies with children investigate a range of phenomena, including the form of children’s negative sentences, how they produce complex questions, how they interpret sentences containing pronouns, how they interpret sentences known as pseudoclefts and clefts, how they interpret passive sentences and so on. At present, our lab members are investigating children’s acquisition of syntax in English-speaking children as well as children acquiring German, Dutch and Mandarin Chinese.

Acquisition of Syntax – acquiring passives in language

Loes Koring

This research investigates the acquisition of different types of passives in typically-developing children. In particular, it looks at the differences between eventive and stative passives. It compares acquisition in a language like English, in which these passives have the same surface form and a language like Dutch, in which the difference between stative and eventive passives is made clear by use of a different auxiliary verb.

Acquisition of Syntax – disjunctions in Mandarin

Shasha An

This PhD research project investigates Mandarin-speaking children's interpretation of disjunction in different structures and children's knowledge of locality constraints on wh-adjuncts in Mandarin Chinese. This project aims to learn more about children's language development and shed some light on the long-standing controversies between different language acquisition theories.

Acquisition of Syntax – word order in Mandarin and English

Weiya Ma

This project examines to what extent children’s syntactic development is influenced by their language input. To do this, the project compares English and Mandarin, languages with different properties. In English, the subject of a sentence is obligatory, and object noun phrases cannot be dropped, in contrast to Mandarin, which allows both subjects and objects to be omitted in certain circumstances. Using the intermodal preferential looking paradigm, the project examines whether young speakers of Mandarin can successfully use word order to determine the possible meaning of novel words.

Language development in special populations – Autism

Peng Zhou

Current projects investigate whether or not Mandarin-speaking children with high functioning autism can use morphosyntactic cues in sentence comprehension.

Language development in special populations – Autism

Neha Khetrapal

I am studying how children with autism understand pronouns. Children with autism are generally reported to have difficulty with pragmatics, so this group of children has the potential to inform us whether our comprehension of pronouns in various sentence types is guided by pragmatic knowledge about the world or by linguistic constraints that are part of our innate linguistic knowledge.

Language development in special populations – Specific Language Impairment (SLI)

Rosalind Thornton

A recent project elicited negative sentences from children with SLI. This turned out to be a challenging structure for this group of children. We are now analysing data we have collected for the same children, investigating their productions of negative questions.

Language development in special populations – Specific Language Impairment (SLI)

Kelly Rombough

My research interests are in the area of specific language impairment (SLI). My PhD project investigates children's production and understanding of the morpheme 'BE' and whether the linguistic constraints on contraction of 'BE' are obeyed in certain syntactic environments.

Word Recognition

Weiya Ma

The influences of tone and vowel change on children word recognition. Studies on Indo-European languages suggested that vowels constrain word recognition more efficiently than tones. This project addressed this issue in three-year-old speakers of Mandarin, a tonal language, which relied on both vowels and tones in distinguishing word identity. This cross-linguistic difference offers an important case to test the generalizability of the functional primacy of vowels.


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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