Sónia Frota

I’m Full Professor of Experimental Linguistics at the University of Lisbon, and Director of the Phonetics and Phonology Laboratory and of the Lisbon Baby Lab (which I founded in 2010). My research focuses on Phonetics, Phonology, and Prosody in language and communication, using laboratory-based approaches. Prosody is a fascinating domain, as it comprehends sub-syllabic units to sentence-level or even discourse-level units, it interfaces with morphology and syntax, it is relevant to information structure, language processing, or human interaction, and it plays a crucial role in language acquisition and language development. In my work, I seek to understand the properties of prosodic systems, the extent to which they vary across and within languages, and how they are acquired by infants. I also study how prosody may help bootstrapping the learning of language, and may function as an early marker of language and communication impairments.

LECTURE: Early markers of language development in typically and atypically developing infants and toddlers

Research on early markers of language development has recently gained growing attention.  Given that the infant’s task in learning a language is characterized by a stronger commitment to the native language as development proceeds, and that prosody has a bootstrapping role in language learning, it is crucial to study markers of early language development in languages with different phonological and prosodic properties. European Portuguese (EP) is a language of special interest for the study of early language acquisition due to its mixed prosodic profile, that combines Romance and Germanic-like properties.

After reviewing previous research on early markers, I will present findings from longitudinal studies of monolingual healthy EP infants and toddlers, infants and toddlers at-risk for language impairment, and infants and toddlers with Down Syndrome, with a focus on speech perception abilities for prosody, early word segmentation abilities driven by prosody, and eye gaze to a talking face. The EP short forms of the Mac-Arthur Bates CDI were used to measure language development up to 30 months of age. Our results suggest precocious discrimination abilities for prosody that may be language specific, different developmental trajectories for early segmentation abilities in typical development and Down Syndrome, and slower development in at-risk infants already signaled by CDI scores at 12 months. The importance of early markers as predictors of later language outcomes, particularly in the case of language impairments, is discussed.