Geraldine Legendre: Learning Language

Geraldine Legendre, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, conducts research in theoretical linguistics, the acquisition of language, and the cognitive architecture involved in learning language.

How do languages of the world differ and how are they the same?

Languages are fundamentally similar. They have vowels and consonants that combine into syllables, as well as nouns and verbs and constrained ways of combining them. Languages might differ in terms of their vowels, consonants, and speech sounds. They also differ in the richness of grammatical distinctions or the word order at the sentence level, such as subject-verb-object as in English, or verb-subject-object, as in Welsh.

What is the challenge for a child learning language?

A child learning a language through direct exposure in early life first has to segment speech into words, put words together to make sentences, and figure out the grammatical distinctions, such as the difference between an “s” being used to mark plural nouns or singular verbs. A typically developing child will have mastered most of that by around age 3.

What are the most important findings from your language research?

My work has documented very early knowledge of sentence-level grammar in 2-year-old children and younger. Our cross-linguistic studies have also revealed big age differences in comprehension of subject-verb agreement in different languages. Comprehension is found in French at age 2½ but is absent in English and Spanish until age 5. This means that the difficulty of understanding subject-verb agreement is due to language-particular factors rather than universal properties of subject-verb agreement.