Elissa L. Newport
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Elissa L. Newport is a Professor of Neurology at Georgetown University. She specializes in language acquisition and developmental psycholinguistics, focusing on the relationship between language development and language structure.
Newport received a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975, where her advisors were Lila Gleitman and Henry Gleitman. She was a member of the faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Illinois before joining the faculty at the University of Rochester, eventually serving as the George Eastman Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. In July of 2012, she joined the faculty at Georgetown University where she currently serves as the director of the new established Center for Brain Plasticity.
Newport studies both normal acquisition and creolization using miniature languages presented to learners in the lab, where both the input and the structure of the language can be controlled, to see how the learning process (called statistical learning) actually works. A second line of research concerns maturational effects on language learning, comparing children to adults as first and second language learners, and asking why children, who are more limited in most cognitive domains, perform better than adults in language acquisition. She also conducts studies of human learners acquiring musical and other nonlinguistic patterns, and of nonhuman primates attempting to learn the same materials, to see where sequential learning, and the constraints on such learning, differ across species and domains. A long-term interest concerns understanding why languages universally display certain types of structures, and considers whether constraints on pattern learning in children may provide part of the basis for universal regularities in languages of the world. Her most recent work investigates language and the brain, using fMRI to examine how sign and oral languages are represented in the brain and how language is reorganized after damage or disease.
Less is More Hypothesis
One of Newport's most well-known contributions to the field of language acquisition research is the Less is More Hypothesis. In this hypothesis, Newport posits that children are better able to learn languages than adults because they have fewer cognitive resources available to them. This is advantageous in learning a complex combinatorial system such as a human language because children, given their cognitive limitations, will naturally proceed by beginning with small parts and will acquire more complex constructions only as they mature. In contrast, more competent adults will begin by trying to analyze more complexity from the start and will have difficulty finding the best analyses. In her miniature language studies she has shown that children and adults differ in language learning in well controlled studies in the lab, with young children acquiring regular patterns and rules even when their input is inconsistent. This regularization process provides an explanation of how children may contribute to the formation of languages over generations.
Newport has been recognized by a number of organizations for the impact of her theoretical and empirical contributions to the field of language acquisition. She has been elected as a fellow in the Association for Psychological Science, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the Cognitive Science Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the McDonnell Foundation, and the Packard Foundation.