Written by Dr Diana Pili-Moss ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
The Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism and the University of Reading recently hosted the Child Language Symposium 2018, a two-day conference that attracted international presenters and audiences to discuss theoretical, cognitive and methodological aspects of child first and second language acquisition. Although very rich thematically and offering four parallel sessions, the conference succeeded in retaining the feel of a close-knit smaller event, which facilitated networking and discussion.
Variety and opportunity for interaction
As well as the consistent high quality of the talks and posters, one of the most successful aspects of the event was the variety of research perspectives the symposium presented. The programme offered a range of theoretical approaches (e.g., computational, usage-based, generativist, statistical, etc.), study populations (e.g., neurotypical vs. neurodiverse, monolingual vs. bilingual), and studies investigating the acquisition of first and second languages. Encouraging a dialogue across methodological and theoretical perspectives was particularly important because the conference was well attended by both psychologists and linguists.
The keynote talks
The keynote talks on the first day specifically discussed general theoretical issues in child language acquisition research.
In his keynote Charles Yang (University of Pennsylvania) provided a computational account of child language acquisition arguing for hypothesis formation and testing as a key process at the base of language development.
Later in the day, Caroline Rowland (Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen) summarized the main issues in the long-standing nature-nurture debate and put the focus on the need to better understand what characterizes language acquisition as a learning process, looking in particular at how linguistic input is processed and used.
On the second day, Kate Cain (Lancaster University) examined a range of linguistic and cognitive factors that predict reading and listening comprehension in primary school children. One of the studies presented found vocabulary to be a consistent predictor of reading comprehension in 7- to 9-year-olds across ability ranges, whilst another found that preschoolers' oral language skills predicted reading comprehension at age 8/9.
Finally, Erika Hoff (Florida Atlantic University) focused on the factors predicting the acquisition of two languages in bilingual children and adults and showed that input (quality and quantity), as well as language use, play a major role in accounting for language attainment across the lifespan.
The paper and poster sessions
The paper sessions included four thematic colloquia addressing multilingualism and autism, the development of vocabulary, the development of reading comprehension and the role of motor skills and gestures in child language development. The poster sessions included about 80 studies in total that mirrored the thematic breadth of the paper sessions.
A number of papers specifically considered how different literacy and cognitive factors modulate language acquisition outcomes.
For example, my talk reported on a training study* comparing 8- and 9-year-old children and adults. The study found that, whilst adults mainly rely on declarative long-term memory in the very early stages of exposure to a novel L2, children also significantly rely on procedural long-term memory. This points to an important difference between children and adults in the way cognitive resources are engaged in the earliest stages of L2 learning.
Attending the conference provided me with the unique opportunity to discuss my findings with linguists and psychologists working on the role of memory in child L2 learning as well as in L1 acquisition.
As a first-time attendee and presenter, I thoroughly enjoyed participating and feel the event offered valuable discussion and networking opportunities. I hope future symposia will maintain the successful format I experienced this year and look forward to the call for papers for the forthcoming edition at the University of Sheffield in 2019.
*Pili-Moss, D. (2018). The early stages of second language learning: A behavioural investigation of long-term memory and age. Ph.D. Dissertation, Lancaster University.
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