Henriëtte Hendriks

Henriëtte Hendriks, Head of Cambridge’s newly formed Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, explains why linguistics – the scientific study of human language – is central to understanding our highly complex system of communication.

“Are some languages ‘harder’ to learn than others? What characterises language learning at birth versus later in life?”

Dr Henriëtte Hendriks

Language fundamentally defines and distinguishes us from other living beings. It gives us a tool more powerful than any other to communicate and to organise ourselves, our cultures and the world around us.

Since ancient times, scholars have debated the question of how we come to acquire it. Children typically develop language quickly and, although acquisition continues well into our teen years, the fundamental elements are established by the age of three years. Of course language learning also happens at other times in our lives, whether it’s learning a second language at school or after moving to a new country.

The research portfolio of the newly created Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics (a merger of the Department of Linguistics and the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics) covers language acquisition at all moments across the lifespan, in all possible and imaginable contexts. Researchers specialise in language learning in monolingual and bilingual children and in adults, either in longitudinal studies that take place over many years or in experiments that evaluate how the language system is understood.

An important question in language acquisition concerns the existence of an innate human capability, or ‘language faculty’, which prepares us for the acquisition of whatever language we encounter at birth. Is there such a faculty? And if so, what underlies it? One suggestion is that this innate ability develops independently of other cognitive areas; another is that we are equipped with learning mechanisms, such as being able to pick up statistical regularities, which can be applied to many different types of learning, only one of which is language.

Then there is the question of the influence of the specific linguistic system we are learning. Are some languages ‘harder’ to learn than others? Are some features in languages learned earlier or later than others? And what characterises language learning at birth versus later in life?

One way of illuminating the relationship between language and cognition is to examine how first and second languages are acquired, such as by comparing child first-language acquisition with child or adult second-language acquisition. In one project, for instance, an artificial language has been invented to investigate whether understanding features of innate learning can be used to facilitate learning language as an adult.

Some children grow up in an environment where they acquire two or more languages simultaneously or successively. Researchers are interested in how children develop grammar in the two languages and also in identifying the differences between typically and non-typically developing children. The latter research is being turned into an off-the-shelf language assessment tool to differentiate between a typical language delay and an underlying learning problem in children.

Looking specifically at English language learning, researchers involved in the English Profile project, which is funded by Cambridge ESOL and Cambridge University Press, are working to identify criterial features for learners of English at given levels of proficiency, such as errors that learners make only during a given period of learning and then cease to make.

Building on the strengths of the previous institutions, the new department will cover a yet more comprehensive domain of the language sciences and provide stronger theoretical, empirical and interdisciplinary research across the board, from historical linguistics and comparative syntax to language processing and computational linguistics.

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