Language, Cognition and Development Lab

Processing Activates Specific Constraints for Language Acquisition

PASCAL is a project to investigate the human ability to acquire language, and the underlying biological endowment that provides specific language learning mechanisms. Clearly, language acquisition (LA) starts at birth, rendering neonates the first population to investigate, to get the full picture of how LA unfolds.

PASCAL’s first objective is thus to investigate core cognitive dispositions, which render neonates able to interact with speech signals. We will focus on the neonates’ and young infants’ abilities to process auditory signals and to store them in memory.

The second objective is to identify biological constraints that determine LA dispositions, in particular we will study the speech perception preferences in infants who do not yet produce speech, to understand if practice with the articulators is necessary to determine such preferences.

The third objective, linked to the former one, is to understand the beginning of prosodic grouping abilities that might trigger the initialization of grammar.

The fourth objective is to identify the origin of the functional specialization of segmental categories in speech processing. How early in life do consonants become specialized for lexical processing, and vowels for the extraction of regularities?

The fifth objective is to explore a basic issue in LA, namely the type of bilingual exposure at different ages and their consequences for the enhancement of executive functions. We will also develop games to promote executive functions to complement the full immersion into a new language that children may get at different points in time. The results of this part of our project might have an important impact on educational policies.

Starting date of the project: 1st July 2011
Funding received: 2.500.000,00 EUR for 5 years of the project


Language and Cognition Lab

Our laboratory focuses on human development of Language and Mind and also on the cerebral bases of Language. We perform investigations on very young infants, bilingual children and adults. In some of our studies we use innovative brain imaging equipment, which is especially well suited for the study of very young babies. Our lab members are trained in many disciplines - pediatrics, physics, philosophy, engineering and psychology. Our combined expertise makes us better able to explore and understand, to connect models of cognitive development and neurobiology, to contribute to pediatric science.

Learn more about us.

PASCAL Workforce

Research team Collaborators Lab Assistants
Jacques Mehler, PI Silvia Benavides Francesca Gandolfo
Marina Nespor, Senior Researcher David Gomez Marijana Sjekloca
Alissa Ferry, PostDoc Amanda Saksida Former team members:
Alan Langus, PostDoc Milad Ekramnia Andrea Junyent, PostDoc (01/09/2011-22/11/2013)
Hanna Marno, PostDoc Ana Flo’ Mikhail Ordin, PostDoc (15/09/2011-14/09/2012)
Perrine Brusini, PostDoc
Francesco Macagno, MD (AOUD Udine) Yamil Dos Santos
Bahia Guellai  
Technical support:  
Luca Filippin  

PASCAL Workshops


Journal Articles

  • Saksida, A., Langus, A. & Nespor, M. (in press) Co-occurrence statistics as a language dependent cue for speech segmentation. Developmental Science[PDF]
  • Langus, A., Seyed Allaei, S., Uysal, E., Primordian, S., Marino, C., Asaadi, S., Eren, Ö., Toro, J.M., Peña, M., Bion, R.A.H. & Nespor, M. (in press) Listening natively across perceptual domains? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition [PDF]
  • Toro, J.M., Nespor, M. & Gervain, J. (2016) Frequency-based organization of speech sequences in a nonhuman animal. Cognition, Vol. 146, 1-7. (doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.09.006.) [PDF]
  • Toro, J.M. & Nespor, M. (2015) Experience-dependent emergence of a grouping bias. Biology Letters, Vol. 11, 20150374. (DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0374) [PDF]
  • Marno, H., Langus, A., Goksel, A., Seyed-Allaei, S. & Nespor, M. (2015) Word order preference with a new lexicon. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 6, n. 01183. ([PDF]
  • Marno, H., Farroni, T., Dos Santos, Y., Ekramnia, M., Nespor, M. & Mehler, J. (2015) Can you see what I am talking about? Human speech triggers referential expectation in four-month-old infants. Scientific Reports, 5, Article n.: 13594. (DOI:10.1038/srep13594) [PDF]
  • Nespor, M. (2015) On phonology and prelexical mechanisms of language acquisition. LinguiStica. 1-6. (DOI: 10.17074/2238-975X.2015v11n1p1) [PDF]
  • Ferry, A., Fló, A., Brusini, P., Cattarossi, L., Macagno, F., Nespor, M. & Mehler, J. (2015) On the Edge of Language Acquisition: Inherent Constraints on Encoding Multisyllabic Sequences in the Neonate Brain. Developmental Science, doi: 10.1111/desc.12323. (DOI: 10.1111/desc.12323) [PDF]
  • Langus, A., Saksida, A., Braida, D., Martucci, R., Sala, M. & Nespor, M. (2015) Spontaneous object and movement representations in 4-month-old human infants and albino Swiss mice. Cognition, Vol. 137, 63-71 (DOI:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.12.010)[PDF]
  • Benavides-Varela, S. & Mehler, J (2014) Verbal Positional Memory in 7-months-olds. Child Development (doi: 10.1111/cdev.12291; Article first published online: 30 AUG 2014). [PDF]
  • Benavides-Varela, S. & Mehler, J (in press) Verbal Positional Memory in 7-months-olds. Child Development. [PDF]
  • Guellaï, B., Langus, A. & Nespor, M. (2014).Prosody in the hands of the speaker. In I. Berent and S. Goldin-Meadow (eds.) Language by mouth and by hand. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5, n. 00700 (DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00700).[PDF]
  • Gómez, D. M., Berent, I., Benavides-Varela, S., Bion, R. A. H., Cattarossi, L., Nespor, M., & Mehler, J. (2014). Language universals at birth. PNAS, 111 (16), 5837-5841. [PDF]
  • Benavides-Varela, S., Gomez, D. M., Macagno, F., Bion, R.A.H., Peretz, I., Mehler, J. (2011) Memory in the Neonate Brain, PLoS ONE, 6(11), e27497. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027497  [PDF]
  • Benavides-Varela, S., Hochmann, J.R., Macagno, F., Nespor, M., & Mehler, J. (2012) Newborns' brain activity signals the origin of word memories, PNAS, 109(44), 17908-17913. 10.1073/pnas.1205413109  [PDF]
  • de la Mora, D., Nespor, M. and Toro, J.M. (2013) Do humans and non human animals share the  grouping principles of the Iambic – Trochaic Law? Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 92-100. 10.3758/s13414-012-0371-3  [PDF]
  • Gervain, J., Sebastian-Galles, N., Diaz, B., Laka, I., Mazuka, R., Yamane, N., Nespor, M. & Mehler, J. (2013) Word Frequency Cues Word Order in Adults: Cross-Linguistic Evidence. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(689). 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00689 [PDF]
  • Langus, A. and M. Nespor (2013) Language development in infants: what do humans hear in the first months of life? Hearing, Balance and Communication, 11(3), 121-129. 10.3109/21695717.2013.817133 [PDF]
  • Ordin, M. and M. Nespor (2013) Transition probabilities and different levels of  prominence in segmentation. Language Learning, 63(4), 800-834. DOI:  10.1111/lang.12024  [PDF]
  • Langus, A., J. Petri, M. Nespor, and C. Scharff (2013) FoxP2 and deep homology in the evolution of birdsong and human language. In Botha, R. and M. Everaert (ed.) The Emergence of Language. Oxford University Press.  
  • Langus, A., E. Marchetto, R.A. Bion, M. Nespor (2012) Can prosody be used to discover hierarchical structure in continuous speech? Journal of Memory and Language.66. 285-306. [PDF]

Book Chapters

  • Mehler, J. (2015) Language acquisition and the neuroscience of development. In H. van Riemsdijk and M. van Oostendorp (Eds.) Representing structure in phonology and syntax. Berlin. Mouton de Gruyter, 141-165.
  • Langus, A. & Nespor, M. (2015) On the nature of word order regularities. In H. van Riemsdijk and M. van Oostendorp (Eds.) Representing structure in phonology and syntax. Berlin. Mouton de Gruyter, 141-165.
  • Nespor, M. (2014) How much of phonology is specific to speech? In R. Kager, J. Grijzenhout and K. Sebregts (Eds.) Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS, Utrecht, The Nederlands.
  • Mehler, J. (2013) Some issues in current language acquisition research. In: M. Sanz, Itziar Laka & M.K. Tanenhaus (Eds.) Language Down the Garden Path. The Cognitive and Biological Basis for Linguistic Structures, Oxford University Press, 348-359.