Learning languages

How children learn maximally diverse languages



Which general cognitive mechanisms enable children to learn every language in the world?

Children are flexible in learning languages because they rely on a few universal cognitive mechanisms that structure language acquisition at different times in different ways.

A child can learn any language, no matter how ‘difficult’ it is. In view of the huge differences between languages across the world, this is astonishing. The main question behind the ACQDIV project (Acquisition processes in maximally diverse languages) therefore is: Which universal mechanisms enable an equally rapid acquisition of all known languages? To answer this question, we are analyzing data from eleven languages (Chintang, Cree, Dene, Indonesian, Inuktitut, Japanese, Romansh, Russian, Sesotho, Turkish, and Yucatec). This sample was selected on the base of a cluster analysis of a large typological database with the goal of maximizing diversity.

It is no coincidence that the sample includes many small, less well-known languages - the whole range of human language can only be covered through their inclusion. ACQDIV not only uses existing data, but also builds language corpora itself. The above-mentioned corpora of Chintang and Russian have already been completed as ‘in-house corpora’. The Dene and Romansh coporara are now being compiled in La Loche (Saskatchewan, Canada) and Sedrun (Graubünden, Switzerland), with the participation of numerous children and adult speakers. This is where Citizen Science comes in. Our primary data comprise multimedia recordings of natural situations in which children learn language. In order to make these data usable, they must be transcribed, translated, and annotated on a word-for-word basis. This process is difficult for two reasons. First, because we do not speak most languages in the sample, we have to rely on the help of native speakers. Secondly, a single minute of recordings can require up to an hour’s work. Considering that a corpus following modern standards typically contains several hundreds of hours of recordings, this means many years of work by numerous people. Our work with native speaker Citizen Scientists covers the following specific areas. For the Chintang corpus, some recordings as well as all transcriptions and translations have been produced by native speakers. 15 young members of the community have been able to finance their university studies based on their remuneration throughout the project.

In building the Dene and Romansh corpora, almost all recordings are conducted by native speakers. Most of these are the mothers of the children being observed, who receive not only financial support, but also the opportunity to pursue further training or education (for example with a view to language teaching).

In order to encourage more people to participate in the particularly time-consuming process of transcribing, we are currently planning to develop a serious game with students of ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts). This game could, for example, be tested in the Romansh part of the project, following the clarification of ethical questions.


Project members:

  • Department of Comparative Linguistics, Psycholinguistics Laboratory, University of Zurich
  • Project Manager: Prof. Dr. Sabine Stoll
  • Project staff at UZH: Dr. Dagmar Jung, Dr. Steven Moran, Dr. Robert Schikowski, Damián Blasi, Jekaterina Mažara, Dr. Géraldine Walther, Dr. Claudia Cathomas, temporary student assistants
  • Cooperation partners and affiliated institutions around the world
  • Funded by ERC SNF.


Graphic artists:

Lisa Senn und Michael Koller