UD doctoral student wins national linguistics award
Dimitrios Skordos


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8:20 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009----Dimitrios Skordos, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at the University of Delaware, recently won the Jean Berko-Gleason Award for a paper addressing language development in young children. The award is given annually at the Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD) to the best paper with a student as a first author.

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Held this year from Nov. 6-8, the BUCLD invites papers addressing a broad range of topics in first- and second-language acquisition, including bilingualism, cognition and language, dialects, discourse and narrative, gesture, hearing impairment and deafness, language disorders, linguistic theory, neurolinguistics, pragmatics, pre-linguistic development, reading and literacy, signed languages, sociolinguistics, and speech perception and production.

Skordos's paper, “Extracting Paths and Manners: Linguistic and Conceptual Biases in the Acquisition of Spatial Language,” describes his work on how children learning different languages acquire the meaning of verbs.

“It is known that motion encoding differs cross-linguistically,” Skordos says. “For instance, English uses verbs that communicate the manner of motion -- for example, 'slide' and 'skip'--while Greek prefers to encode the path of motion -- for example, 'approach' and 'ascend.' In contrast, in English, path is generally expressed through the use of prepositions such as 'toward' and 'under.'”

“We know that very young children learn verbs on the basis of few exposures and that children learning different languages manage to learn the specific verbs their language encodes,” he continues. “What my work addresses is how this feat is accomplished and whether the ways each language encodes events in verbs affects how speakers of these languages think about these events.”

Skordos studied English and Greek speakers, including three- and five-year olds as well as adult controls. His experimental work was carried out at UD's Early Learning Center (ELC) and in a number of daycare centers in Greece. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, specifically the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, through a grant to Skordos's adviser, Anna Papafragou.

“Dimitrios's work reveals the subtle mechanisms used by young children in mapping early words onto concepts,” says Papafragou, associate professor in UD's Department of Psychology. “He has done important comparative cross-linguistic work for solving the puzzle of how children succeed in learning their first language early and effortlessly.”

“The award is a huge accomplishment,” she adds, “as the conference is the most prestigious one in the field of language development.”

Skordos completed his undergraduate education in Greece and earned a master's in linguistics at University College London.

“My previous work was in historical and theoretical linguistics,” he says. “Here at UD, I have found the resources to take a cognitive psychology approach to linguistics in an interdisciplinary environment. The Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science is especially encouraging such an approach, actively bringing together researchers from diverse fields interested in working on human cognition, of which language is a substantial part.”

He points also to the Department of Psychology's Language and Cognition Laboratory, where the research addresses language acquisition in children as well as the relationship between language and cognition, and the ELC, which provides an ideal setting for studying young children.

In addition to the support provided by NIH for his research, Skordos received travel funding from UD's Office of Graduate and Professional Education and the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science. “I am extremely grateful for this support,” he says, “because it enabled me to attend the meeting and share my work with the research community.”

Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson