Thursday, 3 April 2014

Lancaster University staff New international centre established to address child language learning and delay

Experts from Lancaster University and the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool have secured one of the largest grants ever awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – to carry out research which will transform understanding of how children learn to communicate.

The £9 million cash injection over five years will see a new 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.

They will apply their cutting-edge methods – including developmental neuroscience, eye-tracking, and computational approaches 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
- the subtle interplay of meaning in conversations

Professor 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 Professor 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 LuCiD team also incorporates Deputy Director, Professor Julian Pine and programme directors, Professor Caroline Rowland, University of Liverpool and Dr Anna Theakston, University of Manchester.

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.

There will be five streams of research in the UK and abroad. The first four streams will focus on questions in four key areas: environment, knowledge, communication and variation. A fifth area will be the Language 0-5 Project following 80 English-learning children intensively from 6 months to five years.

Centre programme leaders will also develop new multi-method approaches and create new technology products for parents, researchers, healthcare and education professionals.

Professor Rowland, from the University of Liverpool, said: “The Language 0-5 Project will enable researchers to build a complete picture of language development from the very beginning through to school readiness using the latest technologies.

“The use of mobile phone recordings by parents has greatly increased the speed with which language can be recorded and analysed and therefore allow for the collection of much larger samples of children’s speech than ever before.”

The Centre will work with high profile Impact Champions from government, business, the Third Sector, as well as experts in science communication and public understanding, to ensure that parents know how they can best help their children learn to talk.
Impact Champion Wendy Lee, Professional Director of The Communication Trust, said: “I am delighted that the ESRC have invested so heavily in research on children’s language and communicative development and am looking forward to my involvement with the Centre. The research this Centre produces will provide the critical evidence-base we need to create really cost-effective interventions.”

Healthcare, education professionals and policy-makers will also get access to the latest findings they need to create intervention programmes that are firmly rooted in the latest research findings.

Funding for LUCID, and other ESRC funded centres, was announced by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, who said: “Investment in these research priorities is key to driving innovation and growth, helping to influence and shape policy and deliver a better society for us all.

“The UK, through its research councils, universities and institutions is well known for world class research and driving excellence. These new investments will contribute to this and ensure that the UK stays ahead in the global race.”

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