This month, we are delighted to introduce Dr. Leher Singh (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore as our member in spotlight. Dr. Leher did her PhD at Brown University and currently holds the position of Associate Professor and Director of Research at the NUS Psychology Department. Her research examines the role of variability on early spoken word recognition and word learning in infants, as well as infant predictors of childhood language abilities. As a child, Leher lived in Hong Kong and the United States. She learnt Cantonese for a brief spell and still remembers enough to order Dim Sum!
We asked scholars to describe one of the following: a) what drew them to do work on Asians, Asian American children and youth, or another topic that is important to you now? b) who was an important mentor to them in this work, or an influential particular study in the field or in a related field? c) any particular advice or tips to someone starting out in the field who is doing work in their area.
I was trained in infant speech perception as a graduate student with Jim Morgan. I developed a strong interest in how infants break into language and very efficiently solve the many language learning puzzles that seem to perplex adults we learn a new language. As a part of my PhD research, I focused on pitch and its role in drawing infants into language. I moved from that into how infants represent pitch and that led to an interest in Asian languages, many of which use pitch (or tone) to change the meanings of words. This led to an interest in acquisition of tone systems, such as Mandarin, and to an interest in bilingual infants learning one tone language and one language like English. For these infants, pitch fulfills a wide variety of functions that differ across their languages. I’m interested in how these cross-language correspondences contribute to language acquisition in bilingual learners. Highly influential mentors to me have been my Masters and PhD supervisors, Cathi Best and Jim Morgan as well as Denis Burnham who drove a lot of developmental research on acquisition of tone systems.
For someone starting out in infant research, I’d say that while infant science can yield fascinating insight, it can require quite a bit of patience to work with infants. It can be quite resource-consuming research and infants can be rather unpredictable. For this reason, I’d encourage budding researchers to consider the ‘nuts and bolts’ of infant research in addition to the scientific enterprise. However, questions that excite you and keep you up at night can be answered by infant research, it can be a very intellectually fulfilling enterprise.
We also asked scholars to describe a particular recent finding, current study, or recent publication and what makes them excited about it. Feel free to describe its importance from any one or more of these lenses: a) research contribution; b) our knowledge about Asian or Asian American populations; c) our knowledge about other understudied populations; d) practice or policy relevance.
I have published a recent paper in Child Development (Singh, Fu, Tay & Golinkoff, 2017) demonstrating that bilingual infants can be more sensitive to sounds when learning new words than monolingual infants. We have found this difference in a series of studies when testing infants on English vowel sounds, Mandarin tones, and even African click sounds that the infants have never heard before. I’m excited about this pattern of results as it suggests that the constraints on language learning may be quite different for bilingual infants. In particular, this work and that of others suggests that bilingual infants may remain flexible in their sensitivities to language in comparison to monolingual peers. We have mainly looked at Asian bilingual populations in Singapore, but this finding may be increasingly relevant across the globe as more and more children raised in bilingual families. Parents often worry about delays or reduced proficiency in bilingually reared infants, but there is a growing body of research to reassure parents that bilingualism does not compromise language learning and in particular, that early exposure to two languages may consolidate language knowledge. We found that Singaporean Mandarin-English bilingual infants were better at learning foreign African click sounds in comparison to Singaporean English monolingual children, suggesting that the flexibility associated with bilingual experience may even facilitate the learning of new and very different languages. In general, much less is known about pathways to language in bilingual populations, although this is certainly changing in the current research landscape. Singapore provides a wonderful opportunity to bilingualism researchers as most children are raised with multiple languages, but there is wide variation in the languages used, how children learn each language, the amount of mixing of each language etc. Therefore, the consequences of different routes to bilingualism can potentially be investigated, which provides an exciting research opportunity!
Experiences with Asian Caucus
I’m very new to the Asian Caucus, but it sounds like a great initiative and I think it is a great resource for developmental researchers.
The newly formed Asian Babylab Constellation, brings together researchers from Asia and around the world focusing on infant and early child development in Asian populations. Led by Denis Burnham, the ABC will hold its inaugural meeting in January 2018 in Singapore. This will provide a great opportunity for developmental psychologists studying Asian populations to connect with one another and present their work in a setting focused on Asian populations.