Research News

UW-Madison's Vlach, Lupyan receive NIH grant to study effects of early language experiences

September 20, 2017

UW-Madison’s Gary Lupyan and Haley Vlach recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct an innovative and interdisciplinary research project that will examine key questions of how early language experience shapes later cognitive and academic outcomes.

Vlach is an assistant professor with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology and the director of the Learning, Cognition, and Development (LCD) Lab. Lupyan is an associate professor with the Department of Psychology who heads the Lupyan Lab.

The grant, for more than $420,000 over the next two years, will support Vlach and Lupyan's project titled, "The impact of word learning on children's category induction." The grant comes via the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, which is a division of the NIH. 

The research project will explore whether differences in children's early vocabularies cause differences in cognitive and academic outcomes, as well as whether early knowledge of certain words helps to speed up later linguistic and cognitive development.

A key goal of the project is to establish whether there is a causal link between early language knowledge and later cognitive and academic outcomes. “Finding this causal link would mean that poorer language skills in children lead not only to greater difficulties in communicating, but also difficulties with reasoning and certain types of learning,” says Lupyan.

As part of the grant, Vlach and Lupyan will develop an app to help parents track their children's language development. Such an app also has long-term potential to be used for educational interventions. 

Vlach describes the project as "high risk-high reward," as well as far-reaching. The work stretches across many areas of research, such as neuroscience, developmental psychology, computational linguistics and education research. 

“I look forward to bridging neuroscience, linguistics, psychology and education to discover the words that drive cognitive and academic success,” says Vlach. “This research and the app developed in the educational intervention will lead to technology that has limitless applications for improving children’s language and cognitive development.”