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Early language acquisition - how human infants learn language within their social environment

About the lecturer

After undergraduate studies in Psychology at Humboldt University in Berlin, I became fascinated with infant language development during a research stint in the Laboratory for Language Development at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute. I earned a Ph.D. from the International Max Planck Research School for Language Sciences at Radboud University and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, followed by postdoctoral research at the Infant Language Center at the University of Pennsylvania and Laboratory of Cognitive Sciences and Psycholinguistics at Ecole Normale Supérieure. I am now the Director of the IRCN babylab at The University of Tokyo.


1 Subject Early language acquisition - how human infants learn language within their social environment
2 Field Developmental Psychology
3 Key words Language acquisition; Social cognition; cross-linguistic
4 Unit 0.5
5 Lecturer Sho Tsuji
6 Period July 5-9, 2021
7 Time 10:00-11:30am (Japan Standard Time)
8 Lecture style Online (live virtual class)
9 Evaluation Criteria Excellent (S) 90 –100%; Very good (A) 80–89%; Good (B) 70–79%; Pass (C) 60–69%; Fail (D) 0–59%
10 Evaluation methods Attendance and participation 30%
Presentation 30%
Final paper 40%
11 Prerequisites No specific requisites.
12 Contents Purpose
This course will introduce students to the fascinating question of how and why human infants are so good at learning their native language(s). Students who successfully complete this course will have gained foundational knowledge on the key aspects and milestones of early language acquisition. They will also have learned why the social environment is especially important for this process, and how language learning differs across cultures. Finally, they will have gained insights into why recent cutting-edge artificial intelligence researchers take inspiration on the way infants learn.

Sessions 1 and 2 will guide students through key steps in early language acquisition, covering building blocks of language such as speech sounds, words, syntax, and meaning. We will cover questions such as: Why is it so hard for speakers from some languages to distinguish sounds like “l” and “r”? How many words does a one-year-old understand? Do babies know the difference between nouns and verbs? These sessions will be centered around lectures, interspersed with some practical parts such as analyzing speech sound spectra. Session 3 will take one step back from the linguistic content of language learning, and teach about the importance of the social environment for language acquisition. Infants’ learning is necessarily happening within their social environments, but how do they pick up cues from these environments to support their language acquisition? And what kinds of environments in an ever-changing world foster learning? Here we will address questions such as whether screen time helps or hinders language learning. Session 4 will extend the topics addressed in the previous sessions to a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic context, covering how infants across the world learn languages despite the vast diversity in linguistic and social environments. Session 5 will take a step into the world of artificial intelligence, focusing on why and how cutting-edge computational approaches are eager to take inspiration from the way infants learn for the design of artificial architectures and algorithms. Sessions 3-5 will have some individual or group presentations in addition to lectures.  All sessions will take place online over Zoom.   

Session 1. The basics 1: Early language acquisition - from sounds to words.
Session 2. The basics 2: Early language acqusition - from syntax to meaning.
Session 3. Learning language within the social environment
Session 4. Language acquisition across cultures  
Session 5. What language acquisition can teach AI

Each participant will be required to prepare one individual presentation of 5-10 minutes or contribute to preparing a group presentation of 15-20 minutes (the format and time will depend on the final number of course participants). Participants will be able to submit their preferences for presenting in Sessions 3-5 in advance, and will be assigned as well as possible under consideration of these preferences. They will receive reading materials for preparing the presentation a month ahead of the course date.
Participants will be required to write a 5-10 page paper after course completion, covering a topic of their choice from Sessions 1-5. They can consult on their choice with the lecturer before starting to work on their paper.
Presentation and paper will be judged on aspects such as problem definition, literature review and analysis, structure and clarity of writing/presentation.
13 Required readings There is no required general advance readings. Participants will receive relevant material for preparing their assigned presentation topic a months in advance of the course date.
14 Reference readings -
15 Notes on Taking the Course -


UTokyo Global Unit Courses
International Exchange Group, Education and Student Support Department,
The University of Tokyo, 7-3-1, Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-8652 JAPAN

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