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York BabyLab Studies

Phonological Development: Perception & Production

Infant and Toddler Studies

York is a leading centre for research and teaching in phonetics and phonology, in first and second language acquisition.

Our team specialises in the study of phonological development. Our research focuses on infants and toddlers, including observational studies of production and experimental studies of word recognition and word learning. We study the relationship between babble and early words, and the shaping of a child's knowledge of the sound system of the language they are learning. We also study how the speech of the adults around them affects infants' learning.


Research in phonological development

How do babies learn to talk?

In the York BabyLab we study many different aspects of this question. We want to know how much parents’ different ways of talking to their children help the children to learn. We are also interested in how babies’ own babbling, and later, their different ways of forming words affect the way they listen to speech and learn more words.

We study children who are slow to begin speaking, to try to explain why some children catch up quickly while others go on to have long-term language problems. And we are interested in how children remember language, and how this is affected by what they already know and the words they are already using.

We use different methods to study these questions: In some cases we visit babies’ homes to record them, in others the family comes to the lab to perform different tasks. We are learning a lot from these activities – and we think the families enjoy them too, not least the babies, for whom everything is new!

Our research is informed by the following Programmes

1. Interactions between perception & production

It has been well established that infants develop knowledge of the patterns of the native language over the course of the first year of life. At the same time, in parallel, vocal development is marked by a critical milestone at about 6-8 months, with the emergence of canonical babbling (e.g., bababa, dadada – the first adult-like syllable production). One of our major interests is the question of when and how these two strands – advances in infants’ perception and production – come together and influence one another.

2. Phonological templates

Although a baby’s first words are often relatively accurate, in the period that follows we typically find a ‘regression’ in accuracy, with the baby’s words tending to become more similar due to the emergence of one or more production routines or ‘word templates’. We are interested in the ways in which these phonological templates first appear and later fade, in how they differ by ambient language and by individual child within a single language group. Another important question is the extent to which these production templates affect the way children process the speech they hear and the way they remember it – a critical part of new word learning. We are also interested in possible clinical applications of the concept.

3. Effects of input on infant language development

Infants have been shown to be attracted to the variable melodic patterns of ‘infant-directed’ input speech, or ‘baby talk’. Although this speech register is thought to be nearly universal, the style of speech used with babies varies from one culture to another and also between families within a single culture. We are interested in learning more about how these differences affect children’s word learning.

Current Projects

Our projects grow out of our long-term interests and those of our collaborators; our ongoing research and teaching; our students’ interests, and our own observations of the babies that come to our lab. These are the topics that we are investigating in the York BabyLab at the moment:

British and American Infant-Directed Speech Study: Exploring cultural impact on segmentation and word recognition

This study, run in collaboration with Rory DePaolis at James Madison University, aimed to find out at what age British and American infants begin to be able to recognise words embedded within a sentence. We had observed in the past that American babies seemed to be able to do this earlier than British babies and we obtained a year’s worth of research funding from the ESRC to try and work out why.

Loss of ‘universal listening’

Doctoral research by Mariam Dar

Studies have shown that infants in the first months of life can distinguish most of the speech sounds used in different languages, whereas adults have a great deal of trouble learning to hear differences between sounds that don’t occur in their language. The shift away from the ‘universal listening’ of infants seems to occur already toward the end of the first year of life.

ManyBabies 1

Collaboration among c. 60 baby labs worldwide.

Main Investigator: Michael Frank, Stanford University, USA

In this study, multiple labs across the world all run the same experiment: contrasting infants' responses to different styles of adult speech. Comparing results from those different labs will allow us to understand how different cultures and languages affect infant language learning. It will also allow a review of different research methods used by different labs to understand their strengths and weaknesses and improve standards.

This study is funded by the Association for Psychological Science (APS).

BabblePlay app pilot

In collaboration with: Helena Daffern, Rory DePaolis

We are interested in piloting a new app we have developed, the BabblePlay app, with young babies aged 6-8 months. The app responds to sounds the babies make with moving colourful shapes. We hope that once babies see this interesting moving display every time that they vocalise, they will understand that if they vocalise again more shapes will appear. This should, hopefully, encourage them to vocalise more. The ultimate aim of this project is to use this app as a way of encouraging babies to vocalise more, which we believe might help them to start saying words a little earlier. At this stage we are simply trying to find out whether babies can learn to interact with the app, or in other words, whether they seem to understand that the shapes appear because they are vocalising. For this we will measure whether the babies vocalise more when playing with the app than when interacting (or playing) with objects that do not respond to their vocalisations.

Past Projects

Psychological significance of production templates in phonological and lexical advance

This cross-linguistic study ran in 2010, jointly with Rory DePaolisGhada Khattab and Sophie Wauquier, and was funded by the ESRC. We worked with colleagues elsewhere in the UK and in France and studied children learning English (in and around York), French (in Paris) and Arabic (in the Lebanon) and looked at the sorts of patterns that toddlers use in each language when listening to and producing words. We followed a small group of children in all three countries over the course of a year, recording and transcribing their speech.

Late talkers

Late talkers are defined as children who have produced few words and no combinations by age two. Many of these children are ‘late bloomers’, who catch up with their peers within a few months. Children who fail to show rapid advance before age 3 may be at risk for either Specific Language Impairment or Dyslexia. We have conducted a study funded by the ESRC to establish the role of phonetic and phonological difficulties in predicting later lexical and grammatical advance.

Infant production and perception

This is a study we ran a few years ago in Wales (see DePaolis, Vihman and Keren-Portnoy, 2011. For a recent replication in Italian see Majorano, Vihman and DePaolis, 2013). It investigates the way in which what an infant can say affects the way they listen to the speech they hear. What we find is that early on infants are mostly drawn to the sounds in the surrounding speech that they can already produce. Later they begin to be more attracted to sounds they are not yet producing, but that are within their reach.  


Marilyn Vihman

Professor of Linguistics
Marilyn Vihman is a developmental linguist with a primary interest in phonological development. She is best known for her book, Phonological Development: The origins of language in the child, published in 1996. This provides surveys of research on both infant speech perception and early vocal and phonological development. A revised edition, with several new chapters and the new subtitle The first two years, was published in 2014.

Since coming to the UK in 1996 Marilyn has carried out funded research studies that include observational recordings of children learning British English and Welsh, acoustic analyses of English, Finnish, French, Japanese and Welsh babbling and early words, and experiments using the perceptual Head Turn paradigm. Her current research is primarily focused on the formation and later fading of phonological templates in the first years of life. Marilyn is also known for her work on bilingual language development.

Staff profile
Phone: (0)1904 323612

Tamar Keren-Portnoy

Senior Lecturer
Tamar Keren-Portnoy is a developmental psychologist, specialising in the study of first language acquisition. Her main interests are in child phonology and very early syntax. What interests her most is understanding how what a child already knows and is able to do directs their further learning and development. She therefore focuses on investigating mutual effects of production and perception and the way linguistic knowledge develops out of the motoric act of speaking.

Tamar uses naturalistic observation data as well as experimental methods with both infants and toddlers (and a little with adults too).

Staff profile 
Phone: (0)1904 323614

Chris Cox‌

Chris Cox is an MA-student in Phonetics & Phonology and works as a research assistant in the BabyLab. He runs central fixation studies and studies on babble with infants aged 6-12 months.

His main research interests involve studying infants’ categorisation of speech sounds in probabilistic frameworks as well as first and second language acquisition of intonation, rhythm and stress patterns.

He is especially interested in studying the nature of the mechanisms that support the emergence of phonological knowledge in language acquisition.


Florence Oxley

Florence Oxley is a first year PhD student within the Department of Language & Linguistic Science and has worked as a Research Assistant for the York BabyLab on two projects: Effects of Input and BabblePlay app pilot. She has also been involved in a smaller way in conducting word learning studies with infants using eye-tracking and central fixation.

Her own research interests are infant phonological development, neurolinguistics and the evolution of human communication and language. In particular, she is interested in the evolution of the parts of the brain that support language and communication. Her PhD research examines how babble contributes to brain development and vice versa.

She is also interested in what infants’ perception of emotional state information in pitch can tell us about the evolutionary origins of human communication, language and social culture.


Current Collaborators

Dunstan Brown University of York
Helena Daffern University of York
Rory DePaolis James Madison University 
Ghada Khattab Newcastle University
Marinella Majorano University of Verona
Serge Sagna University of York
Osnat Segal  Tel Aviv University

BabyLab - get involved!

We have been running the York BabyLab since 2007. This has given us the chance to meet hundreds of families from York and the surrounding areas – and we have learned a lot! However, each research study not only teaches us something about how babies learn to talk but raises many new questions as well. So we always have new studies going on – and we would love to have you and your baby come take part in one!

For some of our studies we invite you to visit the York BabyLab for a short session. In other cases we would like to come visit you at home, to record you and your child playing together. And in a third type of study we give you the ‘LENA device’, for you to record your child and all the speech the child hears over a set period of time (without any of us being present). And then again we sometimes combine two of these study-types in one – depending on what questions we are asking.

  • To find out what studies we are currently carrying out in the York BabyLab, visit our 'Current Projects’ tab.
  • To take part in one of our studies, please complete our online ‘Sign up for a Study’ form.
  • For information about the LENA device, visit ‘LENA device’ page.
  • For contact details and information on getting to the York BabyLab, go to the 'Your Visit' tab. 
  • More information about your visit to the York BabyLab is available on our 'FAQ' tab. This is a collection of questions that parents often ask.

Your Visit


Infant and Toddler Language Studies Lab 
Department of Language and Linguistic Science 
V/B/221, 2nd Floor, Block C, Vanbrugh College 
University of York 
Heslington, York YO10 5DD

Telephone: 01904 323619



FAQ for families

How do I take part?

To register your child, complete the online 'Sign up for a study in the York BabyLab' registration form or call the Infant and Toddler Language Studies lab on (01904) 323619. Leave a message if we are unable to answer the phone: we will get back to you as soon as we can.
You can also send an e-mail to

What will happen if we agree to take part and what do we need to do?

If you do decide to sign up, your details will be entered into our database. Often we advertise for babies younger than we need them as we have quite a narrow testing window in terms of age for some studies. When your child reaches the right age, if we are still seeing babies at that point someone will call you to arrange an appointment: either for you to visit the University or for us to visit you at home, depending on the study. We will arrange a time that is the most convenient for you and for your baby’s daily routine. After the phone call, you will be sent an information sheet by email or by post with a letter confirming your appointment. At the start of your initial visit, you will be asked to sign some consent forms.

Many of our baby language studies involve one visit to our lab at the University for a speech perception experiment. You will be in a large soundproof booth. Your child will be seated on your lap while different types of speech are played through loudspeakers, and your child’s response to this speech will be observed and video-recorded. We flash little lights or show some visual display to make your baby look in certain directions, and the speakers are positioned near the lights or display. You will be asked to use earplugs and wear headphones playing jumbled speech, so that you will not be able to hear the speech your child is hearing. This ensures that your response will not influence your child’s response in any way.

Some of our baby and toddler language studies involve us making some recordings in your home or in the lab. Sometimes this is just a half-hour filming session of you simply playing with your child. Your child will wear a special vest containing a microphone. You will also wear a microphone.

In other studies your baby will be recorded either in your home or in the lab playing on their own with toys and interacting with an iPad app.

Yet other studies involve your baby wearing a digital recording device made especially for babies throughout an entire weekend. The device is known as LENA and enables us to record for a much longer period of time and without an observer present.

Can we change our mind?

Taking part in our research is always entirely voluntary. If you give us your details but then decide you no longer want to or cannot take part when we call you to offer a place in a study, this is absolutely fine. Even if you have started to participate but then change your mind during the session or between sessions, you are free to withdraw at any time before the end of the final session and without giving a reason.

How long do visits last?

The speech perception experiments in the lab only last for a few minutes, but you should allow about half an hour in total for the visit to the University as some babies are asleep when they arrive or need a quick feed before we begin. There are also some consent forms for you to sign. Some studies also involve us filming you in the baby lab, which means your visit may last up to an hour. Home visits usually last around 45 minutes. The toddler tasks at the University will take about 30-45 minutes.

Will my child’s participation in the research be kept confidential?

Any publication of the data or the findings of our studies will maintain strict confidentiality as to your identity and that of your child. You can choose whether or not to allow your child’s video and audio footage to be used (under a pseudonym) as part of any teaching or research material. All video material is kept in a locked room.

What about child protection?

You will be with your baby at all times and children will never be left with an unsupervised adult.

Do I get paid?

You will be paid for each visit (to either the home or the University) to thank you for your time. There is a free short-stay car park near our department that you can use during University visits. If your visit is going to last longer than 60 minutes, we will provide you with a parking permit.

How can I find the lab at the University?

Follow the ‘Where To Find Us’ link on our webpage for a map showing the location of the Department of Language and Linguistic Science. The baby lab is on the second floor of B Block in Vanbrugh College. (There is a lift.) Full directions will be sent in an email or letter when an appointment has been made for your visit.

What are the possible benefits of taking part?

It is a chance for some one-on-one time with your child. We hope you will find it interesting and fun to take part in our studies. You will also be contributing to our understanding of the very early stages of language development. We will tell you about our results as the studies progress in regular newsletters.

Can a caregiver bring a child for the session instead of me?

It’s absolutely fine for another caregiver (grandparent, aunt, nanny etc.) to bring the baby to the University, as long as the child’s parents have signed our consent forms. It is also fine to conduct home sessions with another caregiver.

What happens when the research stops?

We will be happy to send you a summary of our findings when a study is complete, some time in the future. We will also keep you updated with regular newsletters as the studies progress.

Is it safe for my child to take part?

Our studies have been reviewed by the departmental ethics committee who are satisfied that there is absolutely no risk of harm to either you or your child. All studies are completely non-invasive. Our baby experiments at the University only involve measuring the length of time your child turns their head in a particular direction in response to a sound. Our toddler experiments involve looking at a book or moving some toys between compartments in a set of boxes.

We are a bilingual family. Can we still take part?

This will depend on the study. Unfortunately, most of our studies at the moment are for babies and toddlers from English-speaking families. This is because we are looking at sound patterns and need to make comparisons across a large group of children, so we need the language they hear around them to be consistent.

What if my child is ill on the day?

We don’t expect you to go ahead with visits if your child is poorly. Just ring either the lab on (01904) 323619 or the mobile number of the person who has been in contact with you, and we’ll reschedule as soon as your child is feeling better.

I haven't heard from you for ages since I signed up for a study. Why?

We want to include as many babies as possible in our studies. Please note that some of our baby studies are for infants as old as 12 months so it may be a little while before you hear from us. Unfortunately we may not be able to include everyone who has registered so far due to our funding running out, or the study ending. We do apologise for any disappointment caused.

What if my baby is hungry or needs changing during a visit to the lab?

We realise that despite your best efforts to make sure a baby is fed and changed before a visit, things may not go to plan. We are happy for you to feed your baby in the lab and we have a changing mat for you to use if required.

What if there is a problem?

Any complaint about the way in which you or your child have been dealt with during the study will be addressed. In the event of any complaints arising concerning this research, please address them to Professor D. Brown, Head of Department, Department of Language and Linguistic Science, Vanbrugh College, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD or to Dr Márton Sóskuthy, Chair of the Language and Linguistic Science Ethics Committee, Vanbrugh College, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, email: