We were interested in finding out what properties are common to all human languages (“language universals”) and the ways in which languages can differ from each other (“linguistic typology”). Beyond this, we aimed to answer the question why language universals and cross-linguistic variation are the way they are. To this end, we studied various phenomena across a wide range of languages. Our work made reference to formal properties of language, to the cognitive bases of language, and to aspects of language in use.
As part of our work on the cross-linguistic study of various phenomena, we also worked on the descriptive grammars of various little studied, and often endangered, languages. Today about 6,500 languages are spoken world-wide, most of them are endangered. A quarter of these languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, and many of them are already moribund (no longer learnt by children). To preserve or at least document as many languages as possible, members of the department investigated indigenous languages across the world. They spent extended periods of time in the area where the language is spoken, worked on descriptive grammars, compiled dictionaries, and collected texts.
Children are able to learn any human language provided they grow up in the appropriate linguistic and social environment. In collaboration with the Department of Psychology, we studied whether children learning different languages use the same learning strategies or whether their strategies differ according to the linguistic environment in which they grow up.