Nov. 1, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 4

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    Center for Early Childhood Research symposium will explore language acquisition

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    An upcoming symposium sponsored by the University’s Center for Early Childhood Research will explore a phenomenon that teachers, parents and students of foreign languages have contemplated for generations: Why is it easier for children than adults to acquire language skills?

    The half-day symposium set for Friday, Nov. 9, is titled “Critical Periods in Language Development” and will include lectures by two leading brain researchers. Helen Neville, director of the brain development laboratory at the University of Oregon, and Elissa Newport, chair of the brain and cognitive sciences department at the University of Rochester, will demonstrate that language does, in fact, have certain sensitive developmental periods that favor children.

    During their lectures, the researchers also will address the “nature vs. nurture debate,” discussing the effects of a child’s experiences on the development of the brain’s visual, auditory and language systems.

    This year’s conference is especially interesting because of recent advancements in brain research technology, said conference organizer Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor in Psychology and the College.

    “For the past 30 years, our understanding of brain development has largely been based on research involving animals, but with such recent technological advances as non-invasive brain imaging, we’re finally able to address the existence of critical periods,” said Huttenlocher.

    Neville, who has employed electrophysiological and magnetic resonance imaging in her research, will present a lecture titled “Specificity and Plasticity in Brain Development.” Basing her lecture on research that has compared brain organization and behavior in normally functioning adults with those who have altered sensory and language experiences, Neville will explain why some visual, auditory and language systems retain the ability to change throughout life, while others do not. Neville also will discuss the implications of her research on the design of educational programs.

    The symposium’s second lecture, titled “Critical Periods in the Acquisition of First and Second Languages,” will address why children become more proficient in a second language than do their parents. “An important question to ask has been whether this is due to a difference in experiences and attitudes about language learning,” said Huttenlocher, “or if there is truly a sensitive time period for language learning during which the brain is more inherently able to learn language.”

    Newport has compared the nature of learning in children and adults and has found that there is indeed a sensitive period for learning both signed and spoken languages. Younger learners, she has found, are substantially more proficient in mastering language structure.

    In her lecture, Newport will show that children exhibit certain types of learning processes that permit them to acquire languages readilyˇeven when the instructor is imperfect or inconsistent.

    The symposium will begin at 9 a.m. at the Standard Club, 320 S. Plymouth Court. For more information and registration materials, call (773) 834-7573 or visit the conference Web site at: www.cecr.uchicago.edu/.