£9m will help experts understand children

Children taking part in a previous study at Lancaster University's Babylab.
Children taking part in a previous study at Lancaster University's Babylab.

Experts from Lancaster University have joined forces with the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool to secure a £9m grant to carry out research to transform understanding of how children learn to communicate.

The cash injection over five years will see a new Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD) set up in the north west, working with experts in the USA, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Poland.

It will deliver the crucial information needed to design effective interventions in child healthcare, communicative development and early years education.

The centre will also develop new technological products for parents, including a Babytalk app, which will allow parents and health professionals to record a child’s vocabulary and monitor their progress.

At Lancaster University, researchers will look at the role of environment on language learning in children, applying cutting-edge methods – including developmental neuroscience and eye-tracking a – to help explain the behavioural observations of children acquiring language.

Lancaster researchers will focus on how children learn to use all the sources of information around them to learn the meanings of words, the role of words in sentences and the subtle interplay of meaning in conversations.

Prof Padraic Monaghan, from Lancaster University, said: “Learning to use language to communicate is hugely important for society.

“Failure to develop language and communication skills at the right age is a major predictor of educational and social inequality in later life.

“To tackle this problem, we need to know the answers to a number of questions which LuCiD will be able to explore.”

Centre director Prof Elena Lieven, from The University of Manchester, said: “This Centre will pool resources from across the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster to transform our understanding of the way that children learn to communicate with language.

“Children’s success in early language learning is central to their school readiness and subsequent educational achievement – but all too often problems can go unnoticed until they arrive at school. This new centre’s research will provide the evidence base necessary to develop successful interventions for children at risk of language delay.”

The centre will explore how children learn language from what they see and hear and look at how different kinds of evidence from behavioural studies, measures of brain activity and computational models can be integrated to understand how children learn language.

The team will also look at how language delay may occur in young children and explore whether differences between children and differences in their environments affect how they learn to talk.