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

Stuttering treatment for preschool children

A stuttering treatment called the Lidcombe Program allows parents to learn how to provide feedback to their children to help reduce their stuttering.

The project aims to identify the kinds of comments that result in the greatest reductions in stuttering. This will improve the Lidcombe Program by enabling speech pathologists to train parents more quickly and effectively, reducing overall treatment time and cost.

Project leader: Dr Elisabeth Harrison

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

Varieties of English in the Indo-Pacific – English in contact (VEIP–EIC)

We’re looking at the numerous varieties of English in the Indo-Pacific – and how they contact other languages in areas near the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

VEIP–EIC is an international research initiative that was endorsed by the Union Academique Internationale in May 2015.

Professor Pam Peters and Professor Kate Burridge work on the project with research collaborators based at other universities in Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

We are leading research on English in contact in the project areas listed below:

  • Melanesian English
  • Micronesian English
  • Fiji English
  • Filipino English
  • Hong Kong/China English
  • Singapore English
  • ASEAN English
  • Indian/Sri Lankan English
  • Ugandan English
  • South African English
  • Australian English

Project leaders: Professor Pam Peters, Professor Kate Burridge (Monash University)

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