Language Acquisition

Language Acquisition

Language Acquisition Facility

Language Acquisition Research Group

Our research team investigates how children from 2- to 6-years-old acquire grammatical structures, and how they interpret sentences, especially ones containing 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.

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, we set up situations that target 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.

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 consider joining Neuronauts.


Acquisition of Syntax

Iain Giblin

One line of research that Iain has been pursuing is children's ability to understand and produce complex noun phrases expression possession, such as "Big Bird's sister's blanket". Such phrases are interesting from the perspective of language acquisition because they express a property of human language known as 'recursion', the property that a certain kind of phrase is embedded in another occurrence of that phrase. In "Big Bird's sister's blanket" one possessive noun phrase is embedded inside another. Iain is also working on testing experimentally whether children always use structural principles rather than linear principles when interpreting sentences.

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.

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.


Academic Staff

  • Professor Stephen Crain works on the acquisition of logic. His current projects investigate children's acquisition of logical words cross-linguistically in English, Chinese and Japanese.
  • Professor Rosalind Thornton focuses on the acquisition of syntax and semantics. Current projects include children’s knowledge of negation and its interaction with children's morphosyntactic knowledge, sentences with various kinds of ellipsis, and scope phenomena.
  • Dr Iain Giblin works on the theory of syntax, and how syntactic knowledge is revealed in young children. Current projects concern children's know of recursion in possessive structures and children's adherence to the structural principle known as 'structure dependence' in their interpretation of sentences.
  • Dr Loes Koring joins us in Linguistics at Macquarie University in June 2020. Loes works on the acquisition of syntax, and how children process linguistic structures. Current projects include children’s acquisition of argument structure, children’s production of negative questions, scope assignment and children’s understanding of sentences with the quantifiers ‘each’ and all’. Loes works on the acquisition of English and Dutch.

PhD Research Students

We are currently recruiting HDR students. Please contact us if you are interested in working on theoretical approaches to language acquisition.


  • 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 used to teach 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.
  • Daniele Panizza is a research fellow at the University of Goettingen.
  • Jacopo Romoli is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Ulster University.
  • Lyn Tieu is a Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney University.


  • Nobu Akagi teaches Japanese at Macquarie University.
  • Shasha An works at Global LT-Shanghai as a language coordinator and tutor.
  • Na Gao is teaching at Beijing Language and Culture University.
  • Vasfiye Geckin is is working as a linguist and English instructor at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.
  • Katharina Genske is working as a speech pathologist in Germany.
  • Aijun Huang is Associate Professor teaching English and linguistics at Soochow University.
  • David Huang is teaching at Hubei University of Technology, China.
  • Neha Khetrapal is a postdoc to a researcher at Central European University in Budapest.
  • Min Liao (Maggie) is a postdoc in the Aphasia and Neurolinguistics Lab at Northwestern University in Chicago.
  • Judith O'Byrne is a lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology.
  • Kelly Rombough is a speech pathologist, working in Canada.
  • Yi (Esther) Su teaches at Central South University in Changsha, China, studying language development in Chinese children with autism.
  • Francesco-Alessi Ursini is a Research Fellow at Sun Yat-Sen University.
  • Likan Zhang is teaching at the Beijing Language and Culture University.
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