Our Research

Speech and language abilities underpin much of human communication, and enhance and focus our cognitive, creative and social skills.Researchers

At MARCS BabyLab, we conduct research with infants and children focussing on speech perception, speech production, and related skills such as literacy.

Our researchers monitor babies' responses using state of the art equipment including eye tracking, heart rate and EEG technology.

Combining this equipment with our ongoing studies provides a window into the mind of young babies acquiring the building blocks of language.

Although young infants may not be able to express their thoughts in words, their behaviours can provide some answers to our questions.

Our Research Areas  

How babies learn to listen

In the first months of their lives, babies face the challenging task of learning the sounds of their language. How babies learn to listen

They appear to succeed in this task effortlessly, mastering the sound inventory of their language before their first birthday. 

However, this task is not easy because babies encounter a lot of variability in the language that they hear (e.g., different talkers, different languages, different accents). Here we study how babies learn about the sounds that are relevant for their native language or languages in the first months of their life.

Talking to Babies

A babies' first encounter with language occurs via listening to their caregivers' speech. Talking to babies

Babies start listening to the speech of their mother while they are still in the womb. 

During the first years of the baby's life, caregivers continue using a special type of speech when addressing their young babies known as infant directed speech or baby talk. 

Here, we study how infant directed speech may assist babies in the challenging task of learning their language.

Word Learning and Vocabulary

Around the age of two years, babies can understand several hundred Word learning and Vocabularywords of their language or languages.

Here, we study the strategies that they use to identify words in the speech that they hear around them and to learn their meaning.

Babies Learning About the World

Babies learning around the worldIn these projects, we study the processes through which babies discover the world around them such as how babies learn about the objects in their environment, other people's emotions, and how they interact with other children and adults around them.

Different Experiences in Language Learning

Different experiences in language learning

A number of environmental and genetic factors can impact infants' early language abilities. Here, we study language-learning processes in babies who are learning more than one language from birth, babies who are at-risk for a cognitive (e.g., dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Specific Language Impairment) or sensory disorder (e.g., hearing impairment).

Current Projects 

Cross-accent word identification

Due to increases in multilingual communities and global media access, infants in Australia are exposed to more accented English than in previous generations. 

We know from previous research at our lab that at first, infants are not able to understand words that they know in Australian English when they are pronounced with an accent. 

Therefore, across several different experiments we are working to understand why children are unable to recognise accented words early on, and how they eventually come to be able to understand accented speech like adults. 

For these studies we are currently recruiting 14.5- to 17.5-month-old monolingual infants who do not receive regular exposure (no more than 4 hours/week) to languages or accents other than Australian English. 

To find out more or sign up for our cross-accent studies, please contact the BabyLab.

Research Team

Implicit word learning by bilinguals

As parents have probably noticed, toddlers seem to be able to pick up words that they were never actually taught. 

Recent work from our lab shows that infants may learn at least some of these words by subconsciously taking note of the possible meanings of an unknown word when they hear the word spoken, and then narrowing down the list of possible meanings more and more as they encounter the word more times. 

This may be more difficult for bilingual children to do, however, because they have learned that two words can stand for the same thing, which might make it more difficult for them to narrow down their list of possible meanings for a word. 

We are currently testing whether bilingual infants can learn words in this way. 

We are currently looking for bilingual 14.5-15.5 month-old babies with at least one of the infant's parents speaking a language other than Australian English as their native language, and at least 30 hours per week of exposure to that language. 

To get more information or sign your child for participation in this study please contact the BabyLab.

Research Team

Infants' learning of words containing difficult vowels

Australian English is known for its many different vowel sounds, but recent research from our lab suggests that at least one Australian vowel (the "ee" sound in FLEECE), may be difficult for infants to perceive, making it challenging for them to learn new words that contain that vowel. 

To understand what makes this difficult for infants, whether they eventually overcome this difficulty, and how their language background might influence their ability, we are testing monolingual and bilingual infants' ability to learn the words containing the "ee" vowel in Australian English, and comparing it with their ability to learn words containing different vowels, or vowels in accents other than Australian English.

For these studies we are looking for 14.5- to 16-month-old monolingual babies that are not exposed to language or accents other than Australian English on a regular basis (no more than 12 hours/week). 

We are also looking for 16.5- to 18-month-old bilingual babies who have at least one parent who speaks a language other than Australian English as their native language, and who have regular exposure to the parent's other language (36+ hours/week). 

To find out more or sign up for any of these studies please contact the BabyLab.

Research Team

Infants' preferences for faces and toys

While exceptions undoubtedly exist, boys classically tend to play with toys such as cars and machines, while girls' toys, such as dolls, tend to have a more social focus. 

This research compares children's preference for looking at social versus mechanical toys between boys and girls and across infants and children of different ages. 

This will help us determine whether boys and girls are born with these preferences, or whether they develop in children over time, suggesting they may be more rooted in social pressures. 

We are currently looking for 14.5- to 16.5 month-old infants to participate in this study.

Please contact the BabyLab if you would like to sign your child up or if you would like more information on this study.

Research Team

Infants' processing of changes in novel words

In most settings, when a large change is made, it is more likely to be noticed than a smaller change. 

However, we do not know at what age infants start to recognise these types of distinctions in language processing. 

As such, this research looks at how infants process small changes in words compared to larger changes in words. 

We are currently recruiting 11- to 13-month-old babies who are exposed to more than 12 hours per week of a language/accent other than Australian English. 

If you would like to sign up for this study, or find out more please get in touch with the BabyLab.

Research Team

The Seeds of Literacy

This is a five year longitudinal study that follows language development from 5 months to 5 years of age in infants who are and who are not at risk for developing dyslexia. 

Infants complete 17 visits to the BabyLab at which their speech perception, word learning, and later phonological awareness and reading abilities are assessed using a variety of behavioural and electrophysiological tasks. 

In addition, parent-infant interactions are recorded to assess the quality of infants' early language exposure. 

Our goal is to understand how early experiences affect later literacy in order to inform intervention and support for children with reading difficulties.

Research Team

The Seeds of Language Development

This is a three-year longitudinal study that investigates the development of language skills in hearing impaired and typically hearing infants. 

We are currently inviting 7-month-old infants and their parents to take part of this study. Infants will visit the lab from the age of 7 months until the age of 3 years and take part in tasks assessing their ability to perceive and discriminate speech sounds, learn new words, and recognise familiar words. 

The aim of this project is to identify the aspects of language development that predict later language delay associated with hearing loss to ensure that infants most in need of additional intervention receive it at the earliest possible time.

Research Team

Is learning two languages the same as learning one?

In their first years of life, infants face the challenging task of learning the words of their language. 

A number of strategies and assumptions are developed in this process to facilitate the task of mapping novel labels to their referents. 

The focus of the present project is to determine whether monolingual and bilingual infants are able to use the same language acquisition mechanisms, or do different mechanisms emerge as a product of their individual linguistic experience. 

We invite monolingual and bilingual infants between the ages of 18 and 30 months to take part in fun interactive tasks where they will learn new words for new objects.

Research Team

The nature of pitch perception in infancy and adulthood

Human perception of language and music interacts on many levels. If a person speaks a tone language like Thai, lexical and musical pitches are processed distinctly (linguistic vs. acoustic). 

However, they are processed in a similar, acoustic fashion when one has no tone language experience (i.e., English speakers). 

Tone language adult listeners perceive lexical pitch in a linguistic/categorical fashion and outperform non-tone language peers in musical pitch perception. 

Infants are able to discriminate pitch at birth. How non-tone language learning infants develop their pitch perception patterns to language and music is particularly interesting to understand the diverse perceptual patterns in adulthood. 

Additionally, bilingualism has been shown to affect infant cognitive processing. Bilingual infants illustrate better inhibition control than monolinguals since 8 months after birth. 

This project aims at studying 1) how infants perceive and process language and music pitch and 2) whether bilingualism may influence pitch perception across domains.

Research Team

Our research methods

At MARCS BabyLab, we use a variety of different methods and technologies to effectively "ask" infants what they are thinking. Below is a selection of some techniques we use to conduct our research.

eye trackingEye-tracking task                               

A special screen and mini-camera tracks a baby's eye movement, telling us whether an infant can recognise and match a spoken word to the corresponding picture.

Electroencephalography EEG Baby EEG marina

Babies wear a sensor cap that picks up their brain responses when they listen to sounds. This allows us to determine how sounds are processed in the brain.

Infant directed speech Infant directed speech

This  is characterised by higher pitch, slower tempo, higher affect, and exaggerated articulation of vowels.
We record natural interactions between parents and their infants and conduct detailed acoustic analyses to measure the variations in the qualities of their speech.

Habituation and preferential listeningHabituation

We use this method to test whether babies can hear the difference between two sounds.
Babies are played a sound until they get bored and look away.
If they show renewed interest when a second sound is played, they are said to be able to tell the difference.

Where does our research go?graduating baby

MARCS BabyLab has gained an international reputation for excellence in infant research.

After months of testing babies and analysing the data gathered, our findings are written up for publication in scientific journals.

These findings contribute to better understanding of child development and can have clinical implications for treating children who suffer hearing, language or reading disorders such as dyslexia.

For more information about our publications, please visit The MARCS Institute.