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NWO grant for Claartje Levelt: how toddlers learn words

Professor Claartje Levelt, together with Paula Fikkert (Radboud University), has received an NWO Open Competition grant for research into the development of word production in toddlers.

'To pronounce words properly, knowledge has to be present and applied at different levels simultaneously,' Levelt explains. 'Toddlers often pronounce words differently from experienced speakers: “bo” for bread, “tei” for train and “fup” for soup, for example. But we still don't really know what we can attribute to the lack of knowledge and what we can attribute to the lack of a fluent performance process. We also don’t know yet exactly on what basis young language learners adjust their lexicon and speech mechanism so that they make fewer errors, because research often takes place either in infants or in children older than 4 years. In this project, we want to systematically investigate where young language learners' speech production falters and how they make improvements.' 

Collaborating baby labs

For this project, Levelt and other researchers from the Leiden baby lab are collaborating with the baby lab in Nijmegen. There, they are investigating how toddlers store words in their memory, and how their own language production affects this. Levelt: 'In Leiden, experiments are being developed that test speech production and ensure that young speakers become aware of their own pronunciation. We think this triggers the learning process. All experiments will be conducted in both labs, so we can link the perception and production of the language learners. In this way, we also hope to investigate individual variation in the learning process.' 

Teamwork with the new generation

Levelt herself is especially looking forward to the teamwork involved.  Together with enthusiastic PhD students, we will devise smart experiments that will enable us to discover the knowledge and functioning of the speech production mechanism of two-year-old speakers. What is also very nice: fellow applicant Paula Fikkert and I once started our scientific careers on a joint NWO project on child language development, here in Leiden. With this joint project, we can launch a new generation in this field!' 

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