The study of language acquisition explores the processes by which language learners (children or adults) acquire first or second languages (or more), as well as the properties of the linguistic systems that they acquire. It seeks to explain the perception, interpretation and production of utterances as acquisition proceeds. To do this, it investigates the nature of the structures that learners internalize (in the domains of phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics), as well as the course of acquisition over time, and the mechanisms that explain learners’ achievements. The study of language learnability adopts a computational approach, focusing on how learners (human or machine) can in principle acquire language, the mechanisms that need to be assumed and the types of evidence required.
At McGill, we undertake empirical and computational approaches to first and second language acquisition. In our research, we explore and test different theories of language learning, including the roles of Universal Grammar and language transfer, in the case of non-native acquisition. Our students are introduced to data analysis and to a variety of methodologies for investigating learner language. Our empirical work has a broad focus: first and second language acquisition are examined in the domains of syntax, morphology, phonology and their interfaces with each other. In the area of learnability, we develop mathematical models of language learning, which combine experimental methods from psychology with theoretical constructs from linguistics.