Accessibility statement

Catherine Laing

Lecturer in Developmental Linguistics



My research focuses on how babies learn and produce their first words. I am interested in how babies and children draw on what they know in early lexical development; that is, how their existing phonological knowledge (developed through babble, input and early word learning) shapes what they learn next. I study early word learning more generally, but am also interested in the role of iconicity - specifically onomatopoeia - in lexical development, and my previous research considers why infants produce so many onomatopoeic words, such as moo, woof and choo choo, in their early vocabulary. 

I explore this line of research using acoustic, computational, observational and experimental approaches. I have experience of running eye-tracking procedures with babies as young as 8 months.


  • Lecturer in Developmental Linguistics
    University of York (2021 - present)
  • Lecturer in Linguistics
    Cardiff University (2017 - 2021)
  • Postdoctoral Research Associate, Psychology and Neuroscience
    Duke University (2016 - 2017)
  • Associate Lecturer, Linguistics
    University of York (2015 - 2016)
  • PhD in Linguistics
    University of York (2012 - 2015)
  • MA in Linguistics
    University of York (2009 - 2010)
  • BA French and German (Language and Linguistics)
    University of York (2005 - 2009)

Departmental roles

  • First Year Coordinator
  • Departmental colloquia organiser



  • L24H - Phonological Development (Autumn)
  • L25H/L03M - Bilingualism (Spring)
  • L11M - Directed Readings in Phonetics and Phonology (Spring)



My research is in the field of infant language acquisition, specifically the phonetics and phonology of early perception and production. I’m interested in infants’ use of babble as a way to ‘rehearse’ and stabilize speech segments, and how infants’ developments in production influence their perception of the surrounding linguistic environment.

I work mainly with home-recorded data of infants interacting with their caregivers, analysing both input and output characteristics. To-date, this has included analyses of:

  • Infants' production of onomatopoeia, and how this maps onto their wider production capacity;
  • Infants' perception of onomatopoeic words (e.g. woof woof) in relation to their 'conventional' counterparts (dog);
  • Caregivers’ use of prosody when producing onomatopoeia in infant-directed speech;
  • Infants’ use of extra-linguistic ‘sound effect’ features in early production;
  • Effects of parental work status and sibling number on vocabulary development;
  • The sounds produced in babble, and how infants respond to those sounds in their environment (i.e. in caregiver speech or in object labels).

I have experience of using eye-tracking in experimental studies, and have worked with Tobii and EyeLink eye-tracking hardware.

I am interested in how babble and first words overlap, and how infants’ earliest words derive from their babbling experience. As well as looking at the individual segments that infants produce, I’m also interested in ‘whole-word’ patterns. This relates to work from my PhD thesis, where I studied infants’ acquisition of onomatopoeic words. Onomatopoeia are a prominent word class in early production, and also happen to match the common phonological structures produced in canonical babble. Research following on from my thesis has considered the extent to which early words reflect the phonological patterns found in the babble phase.

Current projects:

  • Babble development and caregiver speech in British and Ugandan babies (British Academy; in collaboration with Tamar Keren-Portnoy and Katie Slocombe)
  • Testing children's languageoutcomes following participation in the To and Fro programme (ESRC IAA, in collaboration with Tamar Keren-Portnoy and Catherine Pape)
  • More siblings means lower input quality in early language development (in collaboration with Elika Bergelson)
  • Size sound symbolism in mothers' speech to their infants (in collaboration with Tamar Keren-Portnoy, Ghada Khattab and Shayne Sloggett)
  • Phonological networks in early lexical development

You can find out more about my past and current projects on my GitHub and OSF pages.



Articles accepted, under review, or in preparation

Laing, C. E., Khattab, G., Sloggett, S. & Keren-Portnoy, T. (accepted as a Registered Report). Size Sound Symbolism in Mothers’ Speech to their Infants. Journal of Child Language.

Laing, C. E. (in prep). Measuring phonological systematicity in infants’ early words.

Laing, C. E. & Bergelson, E. (in prep). More Siblings Means Lower Input Quality in Early Language Development. 

Published papers

Kartushina, N., Mani, N., Aktan-Erciyes, A., Alaslani, K., Aldrich, N. J., Almohammadi, A., ... & Mayor, J. (2022). COVID-19 first lockdown as a window into language acquisition: associations between caregiver-child activities and vocabulary gains. Language Development Research, 2, 1-36.

Laing, C. and Bergelson, E. 2020. From babble to words: Infants’ early productions match words and objects in their environment. Cognitive Psychology 122, article number: 101308.

Laing, C. 2019. A role for onomatopoeia in early language: evidence from phonological development. Language and Cognition 11(2), pp. 173-187. 

Laing, C. E. 2019. Phonological motivation for the acquisition of onomatopoeia: An analysis of early words. Language Learning and Development 15(2), pp. 177-197. 

Laing, C. and Bergelson, E. 2019. Mothers’ work status and 17‐month‐olds’ productive vocabulary. Infancy 24(1), pp. 101-109. 

Laing, C. E. 2017. A perceptual advantage for onomatopoeia in early word learning: Evidence from eye-tracking. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 161, pp. 32-45. 

Laing, C., Vihman, M. and Keren-Portnoy, T. 2017. How salient are onomatopoeia in the early input? A prosodic analysis of infant-directed speech. Journal of Child Language 44(5), pp. 1117-1139. 

Laing, C. E. 2014. A phonological analysis of onomatopoeia in early word production. First Language 34(5), pp. 387-405. 

Pre-Registered Studies

Keren-Portnoy, T., Belia, M., Cox, C., DePaolis, R., Khattab, G., Laing, C. E., Langner, A., Sloggett, S. & Vihman, M. M. (in prep). Size Sound Symbolism in Mothers’ Speech to their Infants: a corpus-based study. [pre-registered at]

External Activity

External Activity

Recent conference talks and invited presentations

June 2022. Laing, C. E. Exploring systematicity in the developing lexicon with phonological networks. Poster presented at the Workshop on Infant Language Development, 10th June 2022, San Sebastian, Spain.

May 2022. Two perspectives on systematicity in early phonological development. Paper presented at the Experimental Psychology Research Seminar, University College London, 10th May 2022.

June 2021. Laing, C. E. Exploring systematicity in the developing lexicon with phonological networks. International Child Phonology Conference (online).

October 2020. Laing, C. E. Measuring phonological systematicity in infants’ early words. Paper presented at the Many Paths to Language (MPaL) conference, hosted by the Max Planck Institute (online).

February 2020. Onomatopoeia in early language development: Perspectives from Perception and Production. Paper presented at the English Language Research Seminar, Department of English Language and Linguistics, University of Birmingham.

June 2018. Laing, C. E. & Bergelson, E. From babble to words: Infants’ early productions match attended objects. Paper presented at the Child Language Symposium, Reading.

November 2017. Variable homelife effects on early language development. Paper presented at the Psychology Research Meeting, Swansea University.

October 2016. ‘What does the cow say?’ An analysis of onomatopoeia in early interactions. Paper presented at the Developmental Research Meeting, Duke University, 27th October 2016.

Other external roles

General Editor, Language and Cognition

Contact details

Catherine Laing
Lecturer in Developmental Linguistics
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
Vanbrugh College C Block
Room : V/C/211

Tel: 01904 322672