Our projects

Our projects

Here are some of our current staff and student projects:

Grammar in bilingual preschoolers

Many bilingual Australian preschoolers come to school only beginning to learn English – and little is known about just how much English they know.

This is why postdoctoral research fellow Nan Xu Rattanasone is investigating bilingual preschoolers’ knowledge of English grammar. Her research focuses on whether these children know how to use both the singular (eg cat) and the plural (eg cats).

This type of grammatical knowledge is especially challenging for children whose first language is Mandarin, which does not mark plurals at the ends of words and has few words that have final consonants.

Preliminary findings suggest many children may benefit from English language programs during early education.

Find out more by reading our Child Language Lab Newsletter (PDF, 1.1MB).

Project leader: Nan Xu Rattanasone

Learning catssss and dogzzz

Ben Davies, a PhD student in the Child Language Lab, has been studying how children learn to use the plural ‘s’ on the end of nouns. This is tricky in English, because the plural ‘s’ actually has three different pronunciations. On a word like cat it is pronounced as ‘s’, but when it is attached to a word like dog, it is pronounced as a ‘z’. However, in words such as peach-es or bus-es, the plural takes the form of ‘ez’.

The hardest one for children to learn is the ‘ez’ ending used in peaches and buses.

These sounds pose a challenge for children with hearing loss. This raises questions about when children with hearing aids and cochlear implants might learn these plural endings.

Davies is now exploring these issues. His initial study was conducted with an eye-tracker. He’s now moved to a more portable and innovative iPad app.

Project leaders: Ben Davies and Professor Katherine Demuth

Enhancing instructions for children with Specific Language Impairment

This project investigates various complex structures which are often misunderstood by children. Some researchers have argued that children have not yet acquired the correct adult syntax for these structures. Our hypothesis is that the children’s syntax is intact, but that children often misunderstand these structures because they are not tested in contexts that support their use. In this project, we aim to show that by providing contextual support that facilitates the adult interpretation, children’s performance improves considerably.

One experiment in this project investigates how the children with Specific Language Impairment understand instructions such as Point to the third green ball. In an array of objects such as the one below, children whose language is developing typically will often point to the third object which is a ball, and green and the third object, whereas adults point to the fifth object in the array.

The instructions will be presented in several different experimental contexts. In our baseline condition, children will simply be asked to point to the object. In our experimental condition, the instructions will be presented before the child is permitted to see the visual display of objects. We will also have the child handle the objects before these objects are placed on the display. The children will be asked to pass objects to the experimenter (“Can you give me two of these?”) so that they understand that there are sets of objects that need to enter into their plan for computing which is the correct object to point to. Both of these manoeuvres have been found to significantly improve the language understanding of typically-developing children. Our goal is to show that children with Specific Language Impairment can also improve their performance once these manipulations in the task are in place. This contextual support can then be embedded into individualized treatment plans for teaching children to follow instructions, and this in turn will help their language understanding in everyday class activities.

Project Leader:  Rosalind Thornton, along with Stephen Crain, Lyn Tieu, Nichola Shelton, Jasmine Martin and Sophie Toocaram.

Emergence of logic

This project examines the meaning assigned to the word for the disjunction “or” in human languages.

Our research on the acquisition of logic has taken a different course to traditional studies into the topic. Our experiments discovered that children learning English assign the same interpretation as adults do, which invites the conclusion that children initially posit disjunction to be inclusive-or. This conclusion has been reinforced by the findings of other studies conducted in our lab.

We’ve been able to chart the course of the development of logic in young children learning typologically distinct languages, such as English, Japanese and Chinese. We discovered that the development of logic is remarkably similar across languages, with just a few notable exceptions.

Our research findings invite a reappraisal of previous conclusions, and support the idea that the logic of human languages, including child language, has a considerable overlap with classical logic.

Project leader: Professor Stephen Crain

Term Finder

TermFinder won Macquarie’s Innovation Award for Learning and Teaching in 2009.

This program helps students understand the technical jargon that makes learning harder in many first-year science and social science units.

TermFinder currently includes term banks for:

  • biology
  • statistics
  • accounting.

Term banks in geology and neuropsychology are under development.

TermFinder offers definitions of terms in plain English, and presents examples of their use from unit reading materials.

Pronunciations of the term in isolation and in the context of a phrase or sentence are also supplied, as well as diagrams and illustrations.

Translation equivalents for the terms are provided in some other languages, eg Chinese, to help international students.

For more information, contact TermFinder project director Pam Peters or Dr. Adam Smith.

Project leader: Pam Peters

Deep learning for natural language processing

Deep learning is a new technology in computational linguistics that enables us to build computer programs that are far better at natural language understanding than ever before. These deep neural networks are state-of-the-art for technologies such as automatic speech recognition and machine translation.

We are using deep learning in an ARC-funded project to improve automatic syntactic and semantic parsing (identifying the way words combine to form phrases and sentences) of natural language texts, in order to identify predicate-argument structure (“who did what to whom”) from texts for information extraction purposes.

Project leader: Mark Johnson

Language and reading in children with hearing loss

This research is part of a larger project examining the outcomes achieved by a population-based sample of Australian children with hearing loss and the factors influencing those outcomes (see https://outcomes.nal.gov.au/). Our specific interests lay in documenting the development of early spoken language and reading skills.

The research discovered that better language outcomes are associated with earlier age at intervention, including cochlear implantation and fitting of hearing aids. In accordance with the view that spoken language skill is central to the development of reading, we discovered that children’s early reading ability is associated with their skill in identifying the sounds contained in spoken words.

Another key interest was to examine the language outcomes achieved by children with disabilities in addition to their hearing loss. We discovered that children’s progress at 3 years of age is influenced by the nature of their additional disability. When the children were measured at 5 years of age, we found a direct link between the type of disability and nonverbal cognitive ability.

Our findings provide strong evidence for the benefits of early hearing aid fitting and early cochlear implantation. They further indicate that type of additional disability can be used to gauge expected language development before formal assessment of cognitive ability is feasible.

Project leaders: Professor Linda Cupples (CLaS) and Dr Teresa Ching (National Acoustic Laboratories, Australian Hearing)

Beyond Speech: Towards better communication for children with hearing loss

Researchers and clinicians from Macquarie University, Australian Hearing Services, Cochlear Ltd, Parents of Deaf Children Incorporated, The Shepherd Centre (TSC) and The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC) are working on a project to better understand the locus of the listening and discourse challenges faced by children with hearing loss. Despite the benefits of early newborn hearing screening and early intervention programs for children with hearing loss, most still experience academic and social challenges at school.

The project will use online psycholinguistic methods to identify which levels of language (sounds/words, grammar/meaning, prosody/discourse) are most compromised in children with hearing loss during different types of listening/language processing activities.

The outcomes of the project will provide an evidence base for identifying the locus of communicative breakdowns for children with hearing loss, helping to inform more effective early interventions to enhance effective discourse interactions.

Project Participants: Distinguished Professor Katherine Demuth (Macquarie University), Associate Professor Mridula Sharma (Macquarie University), Dr Nan Xu Rattanasone (Macquarie University), Professor Gregory Leigh (RIDBC), Ms Inge Kaltenbrunn (RIDBC), Ms Aleisha Davis (TSC), Ms Alison King (Australian Hearing Services), Dr Mary-Beth Brinson (Cochlear Ltd), Dr Chi Lo (Parents of Deaf Children Incorporated).

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