School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics

Language Evolution, Acquisition and Development

Research Themes

Language acquisition, development and evolution includes

  • first language acquisition and development
  • the acquisition of second language morphosyntax and phonology
  • evolutionary linguistics

Researchers in this group formulate hypotheses guided by linguistic theory, and, using a wide range of methodologies, investigate fundamental questions about the nature of language development in ontogeny (the individual) and in phylogeny (the species).

In terms of ontogeny, we are interested both in the question of how language grows in the mind/brain of the child, and also of how second languages develop in adults. In terms of phylogeny, we are interested in how the human language faculty developed in the course of evolution, and what properties the initial stages of language might have had, particularly with respect to syntax, the lexicon and morphosyntax.

Tying in with the work of the Language variation and change subgroup, members of this group also build formal evolutionary models of patterns of language change and stable sociolinguistic variation, using mathematical evolutionary theory to understand the patterns of language change.


Cristina D. Dye's primary research interests are in the area of child language acquisition and development. She is interested in obtaining a deeper understanding of how language, and particularly grammar, emerges and grows in typically developing mono- and bi-lingual children. She is also interested in the neuro-cognitive basis of this process and has studied children with certain neurodevelopmental disorders including Specific Language impairment (SLI), Developmental Dyslexia, Tourette Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Attention Deficit Disorder. Her work is highly interdisciplinary, merging insights from linguistic theory, language acquisition, developmental psychology, and developmental cognitive neuroscience.

Some of her current projects are:

  • Language in Tourette Syndrome (Collaborator: Michael Ullman, Georgetown)
  • Complex grammar in mono vs bilingual toddlers (Collaborator: Barbara Lust, Cornell University)
  • British Academy grant for project investigating effects of childhood bilingualism (Collaborator: Suzanne Flynn, MIT)

Maggie Tallerman is co-editor of the 2012 Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution. Her work involves investigations into the origins and evolution of the human language faculty, especially as this relates to syntax, the lexicon and morphosyntax. She defends the concept of a syntax-free protolanguage in our distant hominin ancestors, and specifically has consistently argued for a synthetic view of protolanguage, in which single words were initially juxtaposed in short, syntax-free groupings, before any formal grammar developed.

Martha Young-Scholten is co-editor of the 2013 Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. She works on the accquisition of phonology, by all second language learners, and on the acquisition of morphosyntax by a specific population of second language learners: those adults who received no exposure to the target language before immigrating/spending a year abroad whose subsequent exposure involves little or no formal instruction. Studying this population allows us to rule out the pervasive influence of the classroom on the learning of inflectional morphology for a more valid comparison with first language learners and young immigrant second language learners. Emerging from the study of this population is Vainikka (at Johns Hopkins) and Young-Scholten's theory of Organic Grammar. Among these learners are those who were not literate upon immigration and who must learn to read for the first time, in a second language, while they are acquiring linguistic competence in that language. These learners raise a number of under-researched language and literacy acquisition questions whose answers allow us to contribute to decisions on the funding of basic skills education for immigrants past the age of compulsory schooing.

Martha Young-Scholten co-founded the inter-disciplinary, international forum Low-educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition forum which since 2005 has held an annual symposium bringing together researchers, teachers and policy makers. Projects include literacy studies of US and UK learners funded by the British Council, a study of year abroad teenagers in Germany funded by the British Council, a study with Theo Marinis (Reading) which isolates literacy as a variable in German immigrants' acquisition of morphosynax, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, a project with Newcastle University creative writer Margaret Wilkinson on fiction in English, German and Spanish for extensive reading by low-literate adult immigrants (Simply Cracking Good Stories) and two multi-site European Union Lifelong Learning projects.

Joel Wallenberg is particularly interested in the question of where linguistic variation (especially alternations between categorical variants) is encoded in the human language faculty, and why two distinct types of variation seem to be compatible with the linguistic system: diachronically unstable variation (language change in progress) and stable sociolinguistic variation. Part of this question is how variation is learned during first language acquisition, and how the process of acquisition allows some linguistic variants to become specialised for different functions, while other variants will eventually die out after successive iterations of the acquisition process.

The latter issue also relates to his interest in using mathematical evolutionary theory to understand the patterns of language change. He hopes to ultimately contribute to the theory of how variants spread, both in terms of selection and drift, and on the level of individual speakers and populations of speakers. New linguistic variants can be affected by selection pressures acting on first language acquisition, as well as the influence of random drift on the utterances individual children hear. His work aims to create a more complete picture of how these forces operate on acquisition; in order to do this, we need a much fuller understanding of what types of child-directed speech and child-overheard speech constitute the primary linguistic data.