A/Prof Mark Antoniou – Field Leader in Language & Linguistics

We are proud to announce that MARCS researcher, Associate Professor Mark Antoniou, has been named the field leader of Language and Linguistics for the second consecutive year by The Australian’s 2024 Research Magazine. Western Sydney University is listed as the leading institution in Language and Linguistics.

The Australian and its partner, League of Scholars, discover Australia’s top researchers and research institutions by assigning researchers and institutions an impact score in each of the 250 fields of research. The score is determined by the number of citations for publications in the past five years in the top 20 journals within each field.

Join us as we delve a little deeper into A/Prof Antoniou’s research journey, aspirations, and thoughts about the field of Language and Linguistics.

Can you tell us more about your Language and Linguistics journey? What sparked your interest in this area?

I have had the privilege of working with world-class research mentors throughout my career.

During my Honours year, Western appointed Professor Catherine Best, a senior researcher from Haskins Laboratories (affiliated with Yale). Cathi is the proponent of the leading model of cross-language speech perception, the Perceptual Assimilation Model. Upon arrival at Western, Cathi started a speech and language interest group that I attended, and it was in those group meetings that I became fascinated with conducting research on bilingual speech processing. She became my supervisor for my PhD and under her guidance I gained a deep understanding and a love of psycholinguistics.

Following my PhD, I worked as a postdoc with Professor Patrick Wong over a period of four years (2011-2014) at Northwestern University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Wong’s labs are vibrant and extremely productive, funded by multiple large research grants. He attracted talented young postdocs to work with him. He introduced me to cognitive neuroscience, a field in which he brought together disparate research areas such as using brain activation patterns (or gene expressions) to predict language learning. He is meticulous in his design and execution of research, with a tireless work ethic.

I had hoped that my next move would be to The Netherlands to work with Professor Anne Cutler, an Australian who was Director of the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen. However, during my postdocs, she returned to Australia when she accepted a position at Western – this provided me with an exceptional opportunity to work with her between (2015-2022). Anne was a giant within the field. Her lifetime achievements were recognised by eight scientific academies (including the National Academy of Sciences in the US, a fellow of the Royal Society, and inducted into the British Academy among others). Her exuberance was infectious, and I appreciated the opportunity to work with her. We worked closely until she passed away. I am grateful for her ideas, standards, and quality of work during our time together.

What do you think would be your most significant contributions to the field and how have they impacted the communities?

My research addresses how use of languages affects cognition. This work sits at the intersection of linguistics, psychology, and behavioural neuroscience, with implications for health communication and healthy ageing.

I have made two important contributions to the field:

1. My research demonstrated that bilingual speech changes depending on which language(s) is/are encountered. I was the first to show two patterns of language organisation within the same bilinguals: when using a single language: they produced “native-like” speech, seemingly free of interference; but when switching between languages, interference increased, and the bilinguals’ production of the same speech sounds became “less native-like”. Until that point, such a pattern was theoretically impossible. These startling findings revealed the need for dynamic models of bilingual language use.

2. My research showed how bilingualism affects cognition and alters the brain. For two decades, researchers have been locked in a heated debate over the extent to which experience with two (or more) languages confers a ‘bilingual advantage’ in cognition. My contribution was to develop new methods to address how bilingualism affects cognition, which has moved the field beyond this impasse. I published the definitive commentary on this issue (3rd highest cited paper in Annual Review of Linguistics), edited a special issue (by invitation) on “New approaches to how bilingualism shapes cognition and the brain across the lifespan” that attracted submissions from the world leaders in the field: Bialystok (York, CA), Abutalebi (San Raffaele Milan), Grundy (Iowa), Marian (Northwestern), Pliatiskas (Reading), Klein (McGill), and pioneered the theoretical rationale for why foreign language training counteracts age-related cognitive decline (published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews).

What are some of your future research goals and aspirations?

There are questions that I frequently get asked by parents, teachers, and other professionals; questions that have gone unanswered for a long time. My future research goals are to tackle the hardest questions and to move the field forward. What specific cognitive skills change as a result of language experience? And how do these cognitive consequences differ across the lifespan (e.g., in children versus in older adults)? Why do some people learn or benefit whereas others do not?

These are really difficult questions to answer.

What would you say to early career researchers who would like to excel in the field of Language and Linguistics?

My advice is to work with the best people and to develop your skills. And we have some of the best right here at MARCS. Working with and learning from them will make you desirable. Remember that future employers will want you just as much as you want them.

I think that Language and Linguistics is the most interesting field to study in. But obviously I am biased! There are so many interesting questions to tackle. Using language is at the core of what it means to be human. It touches on everything. And there are very interesting developments with language and technology – just look at the explosion of large language models like ChatGPT. The future of the language sciences is bright.