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Janet Werker wins award for work on language acquisition

by CIFAR Nov 16 / 15
Janet-Werker-SSHRC-Gold-Medal

Image: Janet Werker receiving her SSHRC Gold Medal Award on Nov. 16, 2015. Credit: Martin Lipman

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has awarded CIFAR Senior Fellow Janet Werker its highest honour, the Gold Medal Award.

Werker is a Professor and the Canada Research Chair in Psychology at the University of British Columbia. She is internationally recognized for her research into how infants are primed to learn language from before they are born. Her work has shown how environments shape children’s acquisition of language, and given us a better understanding that the brain is capable of learning multiple languages at an early age without negative effects, dispelling early fears about learning in a bilingual environment.

Werker has shown that infants are born able to perceive the speech sounds used in any language around the world, but by the age of one can perceive only the sounds used in their native tongue. More recently, she has discovered that infants younger than 8 months can tell two languages apart even while watching silent videos of people talking. Bilingual infants retain this ability even after 8 months, and even if they don’t speak the languages they’re watching.

Werker has been a senior fellow of CIFAR in the Child & Brain Development program for more than a decade, much of it in interdisciplinary collaborations. She has worked extensively with CIFAR Senior Fellow Takao Hensch, a Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, making a central contribution to the program’s aims to understand brain development. In 2013, Werker and Hensch found that a drug called valproic acid could reopen in adults an ability for learning music that typically closes in childhood. The research opens up the possibility for new therapies for the adult brain.

In another collaboration with Hensch, Werker found that babies whose mothers were depressed, but not taking medication, had slower language development. Her recent research has suggested that culture could help bind languages for bilingual children. Werker recently became chair of the advisory committee for CIFAR’s program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness.

“Janet is a true pioneer in advancing our understanding of how infants acquire language and language comprehension,” says CIFAR President Alan Bernstein. “Her research on language acquisition has led to fascinating insights into how infants perceive language and how the brains of newborn children process and understand sounds.”

The Gold Medal is a $100,000 prize to be used for research, knowledge mobilization or other related activities. Previous winners of the gold medal include Charles Taylor, who co-authored the Bouchard-Taylor commission, and Margaret Lock, who recently joined CIFAR’s program in Humans & the Microbiome.

For more information, please see the University of British Columbia’s Q&A.