Our research

Current studies

ManyBabies (Dr Cat Davies)

As part of an international consortium, we are examining babies’ preference for infant-directed vs. adult-directed speech in order to assess reproducibility of key findings in this area. The work builds on resources developed by our undergraduate RAs throughout 2016/17 . More information on the project can be found in Frank, M. et al. (in press), A collaborative approach to infant research: Promoting reproducibility, best practices, and theory-building, Infancy. DOI: 10.1111/infa.12182

Which adjective forms, frequencies, and functions do 3-year-olds experience in child-directed speech?  (Dr Cat Davies and Dr Sudha Arunachalam, with undergraduate RAs Ellinor Hull, Charissa Lim, Catherine Porter, and Anna Richardson)

As a pilot study for a larger project on children’s use of adjectives, we are measuring children’s experience of descriptive language during shared reading and in naturalistic play.  This will allow us to test the  hypothesis that children experience lots of descriptive adjectives e.g. ‘the handsome prince’ (where there is only one prince) rather than contrastive adjectives, which distinguish one object from another, e.g. ‘the big teddy’. By analysing language in popular children’s books, child-directed speech during parent-child shared book-reading, and child-directed speech during free play, we found that a large majority of adjectives were indeed descriptive, not contrastive. This is the first stage in understanding the forms, frequencies and functions of the adjectives that children are exposed to. Watch this space for the next steps!

A randomised control trial to test the effect of parents’ inference-eliciting questions during shared book reading on listening comprehension (Dr Cat Davies, Dr Michelle McGillion and Dr Danielle Matthews)

The aim of this project is to test whether training parents to ask their children questions about ‘unspoken’ aspects of a story can help 4-year-olds from a range of socio-economic backgrounds understand language.

Look before you speak (Dr Cat Davies and Dr Helene Kreysa)

This study measures how much detail children give when describing objects for someone else. The five year olds often missed out crucial information from their descriptions, e.g. the jar to refer to the closed jar in the display to the right, whereas the seven year olds usually gave all the required detail. When we looked at the five year olds’ eye movements using an eye tracker, the fact that they looked at a contrast object (the open jar) or not didn’t affect whether they gave full descriptions. Amongst the seven year olds, the more they looked at the contrast object, the more informative their referring expressions were, just like adults. We are currently writing up this study.


Completed studies

Bilingual children’s semantic-pragmatic comprehension of quantifiers (Dr Haifa Alatawi)

My PhD thesis consisted of two novel studies. The first study explored the pragmatic abilities of English-Arabic bilingual and monolingual children in understanding quantifiers like ‘some’ and ‘most’, and how these related to the children’s cognitive abilities, particularly their executive functions. A bilingual advantage was found only on the pragmatic (not cognitive) tasks, although cognitive performance had strong effects on pragmatics. The second study aimed to establish how numbers and quantifiers are associated. It showed that children’s ability to produce sets representing numerical values had a significant effect on comprehension of ‘some’. I am currently preparing these results for publication.

Referential communication and executive function skills in bilingual children (Prof Cecile De Cat and Prof Ludovica Serratrice)

This experimental study focused on young bilingual children with unbalanced exposure to two languages.
It investigated (i) the relationship between executive function skills (cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory), socio-economic status and language experience, (ii) the impact of bilingual experience on proficiency in the language of schooling, and (iii) children’s ability to make referential choices appropriate to their listener’s information needs.

As part of that project, we designed an online calculator of bilingual language experience (based on a simplified version of the Utrecht Bilingual Language Exposure Calculator UBiLEC – Unsworth 2013), including a composite measure of language exposure and use (the BPI) which we used as a predictor in our analyses.  Further information about the project, as well as the calculator, can be accessed by clicking on the project title above.

Overinformative children (Dr Cat Davies, Dr Napoleon Katsos, Dr Clara Andrés Roqueta, and Prof Courtenay Norbury)

This set of studies investigated how children referred to objects on a screen; did they give enough information, just the right amount, or too much? When they listened to sentences, were they able to tell if a speaker was giving the right amount of information? We found that five year olds frequently underinformed, but were able to tell when their speakers were doing the same. We also ran this study with children with Specific Language Impairment, and found that they could also tell us when speakers were ‘misbehaving’ in the same way, though to a lesser extent than their typically developing peers. This work was published in Lingua and Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

Discourse competence in young children (Prof Cecile De Cat)

This was experimental study of the discourse competence of preschool children. It demonstrated that the linguistic competence underlying the encoding of information is in place from at least 2;6 years of age. This includes the ability to identify and encode topics, and the use of definiteness and structural distinctions for reference establishment and maintenance. Children’s ‘errors’ were shown to be caused by cognitive (rather than linguistic) limitations.