2019 William James Fellow

Janet F. Werker
University of British Columbia

Janet F. Werker is internationally recognized for documenting the foundations of language acquisition in infants, masterfully integrating research on the fundamental biological capacities of human infants with investigations into the environmental factors that shape developing minds.

In an illustrious career that spans four decades, Werker has identified several milestones in early infancy that reveal a child’s progress in language development. These include infants’ perception of speech, the acquisition of native speech sound categories, and the early word learning that speech perception supports. Moreover, she has documented similarities and differences in these milestones in bilingual-learning in comparison to monolingual-learning infants.

Werker has shown that during their first year, infants can distinguish among a large variety of speech sounds, including those that are not present in their native languages; as they become experts in the sounds of their native languages, they lose this perceptual breadth. She has determined that both statistical learning and word learning play a role in the shaping of native speech sound categories, and has extensively explored biologically based sensitive periods that control the timing of optimal learning. This includes work with infants born prematurely and those exposed to different kinds of drugs in utero.

Werker’s research with infants and toddlers employs several methods, including behavioral assessments, electrophysiological testing, and noninvasive optical neural imaging.

Her tenacious, curious approach to complex questions often leaves her colleagues in awe and places her among the most influential developmental scientists of her generation.