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GUC24S332C | 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. After directing the IRCN babylab at The University of Tokyo for 5 years, I returned to study infants at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (CNRS). Sho Tsuji
Asst. Prof. Sho TSUJI

Video Introduction

Early language acquisition


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; Developmental psychology; Cross-linguistic
4 Global Unit 1
5 Lecturer Sho TSUJI
6 Period July 16 - 26, 2024
7 Time 13:00-14:30 [July 16, 17, 19-26]
13:00-14:30, 15:00-16:30 [July 18]
(Japan Standard Time)
8 Lecture style In-person (on Hongo Campus)
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 prerequisites
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, how language learning differs across cultures, how bilingual children learn language, and how language impairment affects acquisition. Finally, they will have gained insights into why recent cutting-edge artificial intelligence researchers take inspiration from 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? Session 3 will cover infant and child research methods: Babies have a short attention span and cannot simply answer questions, so researchers need to devise specialized methods to measure them. We will overview experimental and observational, behavioral and neurocognitive methods in this session. In Session 4, we will see these methods in action during our IRCN babylab visit. Session 5 will address the many ways the social environment is central for learning about language. How do infants pick up cues from their social environment, how does interaction support learning? Here we will also address questions such as whether screen time helps or hinders language learning. Session 6 will extend these topics 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. In Session 7, we will learn about bi- and multilingual language acquisition, including how widespread multilingualism actually is and to what extent multilingual language acquisition differs from monolingual acquisition. Session 8 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.
Session 9 will give us some hands-on experience on analyzing corpus or baby data. Finally, in Session 10 we will work in groups to write a blog post on a select topic about language acquisition for the general public. Every participant will be asked to prepare a short individual presentation which will be given as part of the lectures. At the current point, we foresee all sessions to take place in person.
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. Research methods in language acquisition.
Session 4. Lab visit: How we run infant studies.
Session 5. Learning language within the social environment.
Session 6. Language acquisition across cultures. 
Session 7. Bilingual language acquisition.
Session 8. What language acquisition can teach AI
Session 9. Hands-on session: Let’s analyze some language data.
Session 10. Groupwork: Let’s write a blog post on language acquisition!
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). Information on presentation topics will be made available a few weeks before the course, and participants will be able to submit their preferred topics in advance. They will be assigned as well as possible under consideration of these preferences.
Participants will be required to write a paper of around 5 pages after course completion, covering a topic of their choice related to the course content. 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 No advance readings. There is no required general advance reading. Participants will receive relevant material for preparing their assigned presentation topic a few weeks in advance of the course date.
14 Reference readings -
15 Notes on Taking the Course -
UTokyo Global Unit Courses (GUC)
International Education Promotion Group, Education and Student Support Department
The University of Tokyo, 7-3-1, Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-8652 JAPAN

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