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Language Processing in Childhood

    Across childhood, we do not only acquire knowledge about the sounds, words, and sentence structures of a language, but also undergo dramatic changes in the ability to produce and understand language in real time. These changes reflect shifts in our emerging sensitivity to various kinds of information, as well as increases in the speed and capacity of the "mental machinery" that underlies our ability to combine this information.

    In collaboration with Dr. Susan Graham and her students at the University of Calgary, we focus on children's language processing abilities across the ages of 3 to 5, which corresponds to a phase in development where there are substantial changes in the ability to manage different types of incoming information. This period of development also involves dramatic changes in the ability to consider the perspective of another person, which is a key element in effective communication.



    Our research asks questions like the following:

    Young children can detect emotional characteristics of a talker's speech. But can they use this information to infer what the talker might be referring to, or to learn new words? What if the speaker's emotional reaction to an object or event would be different than that of a child listener?

    Can children use minor speech disfluencies like "ums" and "uhs" to guide real-time interpretation? And to what degree does this ability hinge on social reasoning?

    How good are preschoolers at keeping track of the fact that they know things that a communicative partner might not be aware of? Is this knowledge salient enough to guide the real-time processing of spoken language?

Representative studies:

Lee, R., Chambers, C.G., Huettig, F., & Ganea, P.A. (2022).  Children’s and adults’ use of fictional discourse and semantic knowledge for prediction in language processing. PLOS ONE.


Khu, M., Chambers, C.G., & Graham, S.A. (2020). Preschoolers flexibly shift between speakers' perspectives during real-time language comprehension. Child Development, 91, e619-e634.

Khu, M., Chambers, C.G., & Graham, S.A. (2018). When you're happy and I know it: Four-year-olds' emotional perspective-taking during on-line langauge comprehension. Child Development, 89, 2264-2281.

Thacker, J.M., Chambers, C.G., & Graham, S.A. (2018). When is it apt to adapt: Flexible reasoning guides children's use of talker identity and disfluency cues. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 167, 314-324.

San Juan, V., Chambers, C.G., Berman, J., Humphry, C., & Graham, S.A.
(2017). The object of my desire: 5-year-olds rapidly reason about the speaker's desire during referential communication. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 162, 101-119.

Collins, S.J., Graham, S.A., & Chambers, C.G. (2012). Preschoolers' sensitivity to speaker action constraints to infer communicative intent. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 112, 389-402.

Berman, J., Chambers, C.G., & Graham, S.A. (2010). Preschoolers'
appreciation of vocal affect as a cue to referential intent. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 107, 87-99.

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