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 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 Possessives

Iain Giblin

This research focuses on children’s ability to produce and understand complex possessive phrases. The concepts of possession and ownership are some of the first concepts expressed by children and the aim of this research is to understand the scope and structure of possession in language acquisition.

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 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.

A study with Hirohisa Kiguchi examines children's interpretation of scope ambiguities. We are interested in finding out if children know when sentences are ambiguous and when they are not. Our project focuses on this issue in what are known as double object sentences, ones with two objects such as Snow White gave a lady every cupcake. In this sentence, a lady and every cupcake are the two objects. This sentence is not ambiguous, it can only mean that Snow White gave a particular lady every cupcake. This can be compared with very similar sentences which are ambiguous. For example, the sentence Snow White gave every cupcake to a lady can mean that Snow White gave every cupcake to a particular lady, but it can also mean that Snow White distributed the cupcakes, giving one to each lady. Our goal is to find out if children can access both meanings of various ambiguous sentences, but limit the meanings of similar sentences which are not ambiguous.

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

Rosalind Thornton

A recent project elicited negative sentences from children with the form of developmental language delay known as SLI. Negative sentences turned out to be a challenging structure for this group of children. Children acquiring English have to learn that English has two ways to negate a sentence, either with the adverb not or with the contracted form n't that appears in doesn't and other negative auxiliary verbs. Knowledge of how n't works in the grammar of English is quite a late development in typically-developing children, and considerably delayed in children with SLI. We have found that this has a cascading effect, as it means that children with SLI are also delayed in producing adult-like negative wh-questions. Negative wh-questions such as What doesn't Mickey Mouse like? require the negative auxiliary verb to undergo movement in the structure, but children cannot implement this movement until they know how n't works in the grammar.

In a new project, we are starting to investigate how children with SLI interpret instructions, what factors get in the way, and how we can facilitate adult-like interpretation of complex structures.

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.


Academic Staff

  • Professor Stephen Crain works on the acquisition of logic. His current projects investigate children's acquisition of English, Chinese and Japanese.
  • Professor 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.

PhD Research Students

  • 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 teaches at the University of New England. Drew 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 Postdocs

  • Mike Iverson is a postdoc in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Indiana.
  • Vincenzo Moscati is a Senior Researcher at the University of Siena.
  • Jacopo Romoli is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Ulster University.
  • Lyn Tieu is a Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney University.
  • Loes Koring teaches at Utrecht University.


  • Aijun Huang is Associate Professor teaching English and linguistics at Soochow University.
  • Nobu Akagi teaches Japanese at Macquarie University.
  • Shasha An works at Global LT-Shanghai as a language coordinator and tutor.
  • Vasfiye Geckin is is working as a linguist and English instructor at Bogazici University in Istanbul.
  • Katharina Genske is working as a speech pathologist in Germany.
  • Neha Khetrapal is working as an Independent Consultant at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling.
  • 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 is a Research Fellow at Sun Yat-Sen University.
  • Likan Zhang is at the Beijing Language and Culture University, as manager of the MEG brain research lab.
  • Judith O'Byrne teaches Applied Linguistics at the Queensland University of Technology.

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Content owner: Department of Cognitive Science Last updated: 12 Mar 2020 12:05pm

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