MARCS: The Origins of Phonology and Lexicon (OPAL): Abstract Representations before 6 Months

MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development

Scholarship code: 2020-018

About the project

Language is one of the most sophisticated human abilities, yet infants learn it easily. The current view is that the origins of language are abstract representations of consonants and vowels that start to form at 6-10 months. However, recent evidence shows that abstraction begins before 3 months, and that carer-infant conversations are vital to the process. This study involves tracking infants’ behavioural and brain development from 1 to 18 months and analysing carer-infant speech, to determine how early abstraction supports vocabulary growth, how carer speech assists this process, and what early conditions predict language development, thus benefiting earlier identification of language delay, and saving significantly on later remediation.

The project for the PhD student within this project will involve:

  • A detailed literature review of the area and derivation of procedures and timeline for the thesis.
  • Studies of the longitudinal sample of 104 infants at the early ages of 1, 4 and 7 months, involving laboratory-based tests of phonological abstraction using behavioural (habituation-test) and neural (EEG) methods, and parental infant-directed speech (IDS) to the infant both in laboratory tests (acoustic and phonetic measures) and home settings (using the LENA device to extract lexical and interactional measures).
  • Involvement in the project at the later infant ages, 10, 14 and 18 months, as appropriate.
  • Preparing and submitting a PhD thesis that examines the relationship between 1, 4, and 7 month-old infants’ early phonological abstraction ability and their parent’s IDS in terms of its acoustic (pitch), emotional (communicative intent), phonetic (hyperarticulation, dispersion), and lexical/linguistic (#parental words to infant, conversational turns) aspects.

The project will be based at The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development(opens in new window)Opens in a new window with the opportunity to work with Dr Marina Kalashnikova, based at the Basque Center on Cognition and Language, San Sebastian, Spain, on Infant Directed Speech analysis and interpretation.

The MARCS Institute is an interdisciplinary research institute of Western Sydney University. The MARCS Institute studies the scientific bases of human communication. Situated on four campuses, MARCS research on brain, behaviour and development encompasses such areas as: how we combine information from different sensory modalities; how we learn language and handle foreign accents; how to program robots for human interaction; how we can enhance communication with infants, those with hearing impairments, and the elderly; and how music and human movement communicate universally. We apply our work to advanced technology, biomedical engineering, and improving physical and mental health by designing electronics inspired by neural systems, building better biomedical devices, analysing heightened performance in the creative arts, and addressing impaired performance in developmental delay and sensory deficit.

What does the scholarship provide?

  • Domestic candidates will receive a tax-free stipend of $30,000(AUD) per annum for up to 3 years to support living costs, supported by the Research Training Program (RTP) Fee Offset.
  • International candidates will receive a tax-free stipend of $30,000(AUD) per annum for up to 3 years to support living costs. Those with a strong track record will be eligible for a tuition fee waiver.
  • Support for conference attendance, fieldwork and additional costs as approved by the Institute up to a value of $15,000.

International candidates are required to hold an Overseas Student Health Care (OSHC)(opens in new window)Opens in a new window insurance policy for the duration their study in Australia, with the scholarship providing funding for single cover.

Eligibility criteria

We welcome applicants from a range of backgrounds, who are keen to apply their skills to issues in infant language development, infant learning and parent-infant interaction. In particular, the project is suitable for candidates with strong interests in linguistics, psychology, language learning, neuroscience and/or communication sciences and disorders.

The successful applicant should:

  • hold qualifications and experience equal to one of the following (i) an Australian First Class Bachelor (Honours) degree, (ii) coursework Masters with at least 25% research component, (iii) Research Masters degree, (iv) equivalent overseas qualifications, or (v) an equivalent combination of the above.
  • demonstrate strong academic performance in subjects relevant to linguistics, language learning, psychology, neuroscience and/or communication sciences and disorders.
  • have an understanding of the importance of language, language learning, cognition and parent-infant interaction.
  • be willing to learn analytical techniques and statistical procedures applicable to experimental laboratory studies in psycholinguistic, phonetic and infant development research, including speech perception and language acquisition and learning.
  • be enthusiastic and highly motivated to undertake further study at an advanced level.

International applicants must demonstrate English language proficiency.(opens in new window)Opens in a new window

How to apply

1. Contact Professor Denis Burnham ( to discuss your eligibility, the project requirements and your intention to apply.

2. Review the research scholarships frequently asked questions.(opens in new window)Opens in a new window

3. Submit an online application for admission.(opens in new window)Opens in a new window

4. Complete the project scholarship application form (PDF, 89.74 KB).(opens in new window)Opens in a new window

5. Compile your CV, contact information for two referees and a one-page proposal stating how your research interests align with the project aims.

6. Submit your scholarship application form and any supporting documentation to the Graduate Research School as follows:

  • Use the email subject line: Application_2020_018_MARCS
  • Submit to
  • All attached documents must be submitted as PDF.
  • In the body of your email, include your full name, your student ID (if you are a current or previous Western Sydney University student) and the full title of the scholarship.

Applicants who do not submit an online application for admission will not be considered.

Incomplete applications or applications that do not conform to the above requirements will not be considered.

Please contact the Graduate Research School via email at for more information.

Applications close 31 March 2020

*Applications close at 11.59pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT).