Ditte Boeg Thomsen
Karen Blixens Plads 8, 2300 København S, 10 Bygning 10 (Afsnit 2), Building: 10-2-25
Primary fields of research
- First language acquisition
- Social cognition
- Memory and attention
- Atypical neurological development
- Semantic typology
- Linguistic fieldwork
- Language endangerment
- Otomí and Nahuatl
- Spatial language and cognition
I'm a psycholinguist with expertise in the relationship between language and cognition, in children’s language acquisition and in field linguistics and semantic typology.
My research in all three areas is driven by interest in the ways in which language and cognition mutually affect each other. On the one hand, we depend on general cognitive processes such as pattern recognition and generalization to learn, understand and produce language, and on the other hand, our linguistic experience shapes our attention, memory and problem-solving strategies. Understanding this interplay can help us to support both typically developing children and children with atypical development in their linguistic, cognitive and social development.
One way to investigate this interplay is to examine what happens when children acquire language. Do children develop new cognitive strategies as they acquire increasingly robust and complex linguistic tools? And conversely, what general cognitive processes do children rely on when they acquire language? Do children for instance get better at learning new grammatical constructions the better their short-term memory is? These are central questions in my research in children’s language acquisition.
We can also investigate the language-cognition interplay in adults, and in this case, an especially fruitful approach is to compare cognitive strategies in speakers of languages with radically different linguistic structure. What aspects of situations do speakers pay routine attention to and remember, and are there differences between speakers of different languages? And can such cognitive differences be explained by grammatical differences in what aspects of situations languages make it easy, difficult or even necessary to convey linguistically? These are central questions in my field studies in indigenous languages in Mexico.
An in-depth understanding of the interrelationship between language and cognition requires interdisciplinary approaches, and I work closely together with psychologists, speech therapists, educators, neurologists and anthropologists. I’m member of the governing board for the Scandinavian Association for Language and Cognition (SALC), an association that works to strengthen research in language and cognition by promoting cooperation between linguists, psychologists and cognitive scientists across Scandinavia. Further, I’m a co-editor of Acta Linguistica Hafniensia, International Journal of Linguistics, a linguistics journal that publishes cognitive and crosslinguistic language studies.
Below, you can read more about the concrete questions my research addresses in the areas of Language and social cognition, Children’s language acquisition and Field linguistics, crosslinguistic variation and semantic typology.
Language and Social Cognition
One of the primary questions driving my research is how we can use our knowledge about relationships between language and cognition as a key to reinforce children’s social cognition and support their abilities to handle complex social phenomena such as mistakes, conflicts and shared understanding.
In my PhD dissertation, Linguistic perspective marking and mental-state reasoning in children with autism: A training study with complement clauses (2016), I investigated how we can help children with autism spectrum disorders develop a more robust understanding of complex social situations by giving them linguistic tools. In a training study straddling linguistics and psychology, I worked together with psychologists from The Autism Research Group, City University London and the research group Language and Cognition – Perspectives from Impairment, University of Copenhagen.
The training study showed that acquiring grammatical strategies for communicating about thoughts and feelings can facilitate the understanding of invisible mental aspects of situations in children with autism. Is this a special facilitating relationship in children with autism, or do we see the same linguistic influence on social cognition in typical development? This was the central question in a series of experiments I conducted as a postdoc in Lancaster (2017-2019) at the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD) and Lancaster University Babylab together with my colleagues from Linguistics and Psychology in the research group investigating Modal and mental state terms. In longitudinal and training studies with English-speaking 2-and-3-year-olds, we examined the influence of complement-clause mastery, vocabulary, short-term and working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility on children’s sociocognitive development. The experiments showed that 2-and-3-year-old children’s acquisition of perspective-marking grammar (in the shape of complement clauses) supports them in developing a flexible and robust understanding of their own and others’ thoughts.
The projects have roots in many years of work with Danish kindergarteners’ acquisition of linguistic viewpoint markers. Since 2008, I have recorded a large spontaneous-speech corpus of group conversations between kindergarteners who are followed longitudinally (222 hours), and by analysing developments in peer conversations, I have investigated acquisition of perspective-marking sentence grammar (complement clauses such as He says [it’s dangerous], I think [we can do it]) and discourse particles (such as jo, da and vel) that subtly mark shared understanding, disagreement and uncertainty in conversation.
Based on this knowledge about how typically developing children acquire perspective-marking particles, I developed a test together with Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen to investigate how children with autism understand these socially complex words, with the aim of obtaining more precise knowledge about the communicative strengths and challenges in this group of children.
In addition to this, my research on children’s language acquisition concentrates on four areas: 1) Pragmatic development, 2) Interplay between phonological and lexical development, 3) Bilingual acquisition of Danish grammar, and 4) Children with atypical neurological development.
1) Pragmatic abilities are the communicative abilities we use when we successfully adapt our utterances and our understanding of others’ utterances to the specific person(s) we are interacting with in a specific situational and linguistic context. By means of comprehension experiments and longitudinal spontaneous-speech analyses targeting object-first constructions, I examine kindergarteners’ abilities to integrate grammatical cues at the level of the sentence (case and word order) with discourse-contextual cues at the level of the larger narrative or conversational context (topicality and contrast).
2) Children’s language acquisition doesn’t only interact with cognitive and social development, but also with sensorimotor development. One phase where the influence from sensorimotor experience on language acquisition is especially conspicuous is in the transition from babbling to children’s first words and in children’s early lexical development, where children’s babbling experience with hearing and articulating sounds plays an important role. This is our main focus in the research group From Sound To Word (Center for Language Learning, University of Southern Denmark), where we both examine the interplay between phonological and lexical development (9-30 months) and assess the effects of sound structure and phonetic variation in the ambient language.
3) Many children in Denmark grow up with another first language than Danish, and in the Danish-Dutch research group GIDDY (Gender in Dutch and Danish Youngsters), we examine bilingual schoolchildren’s acquisition of a notoriously challenging aspect of grammar: grammatical gender. Through production experiments, we investigate which linguistic contexts provide children with privileged opportunities for coming to master Danish grammatical gender, focusing on factors such asfrequency, transparency, structural complexity, cue amount, semantic patterns and phonological integration.
4) One of the reasons why it’s important to study how children typically acquire language is that knowledge about typical development can help us detect in which ways language acquisition proceeds differently in children with atypical neurological development characterized by cognitive and communicative impairment and help us develop methods to support these children. As mentioned above, part of my research therefore focuses on how we can strengthen linguistic development in children with autism, and I’m part of the interdisciplinary Danish Network for Autism Researchers, where psychologists, medical doctors, linguists and speech therapists share new research on autism.
Another group of children whose linguistic development is affected by special neurological conditions are children who have had a cerebellar tumour surgically removed. Many of these children develop Cerebellar Mutism Syndrome, a syndrome where children lose the ability to speak for weeks or months, and where their language can subsequently be characterized by striking or subtle deviations for many years after surgery. I’m a member of the interdisciplinary Posterior Fossa Society and part of a large international research project, the Nordic-European Study of the Cerebellar Mutism Syndrome (CMS) in Children with Brain Tumours of the Posterior Fossa. In this project, medical doctors, neurosurgeons, speech therapists and linguists in 10 countries collaborate to clarify which specific aspects of language are affected in CMS and why, and I coordinate and supervise the speech and language analysis in the different participating countries.
Fieldwork, Crosslinguistic Variation and Semantic Typology
An illuminating approach to investigating the interplay between language and cognition is crosslinguistic comparison of languages with grammars and lexicons that differ radically from each other. This allows us to test whether there is not only a difference between the ways in which speakers of different languages communicate about phenomena, but also between their ways of attending to, categorizing and remembering phenomena. My field-linguistic research in crosslinguistic variation and semantic typology focuses on linguistic strategies for communicating about orientation, motion and landscape in indigenous languages in Mexico and on the potential cognitive correlates of these linguistic strategies in the shape of spatial attention, categorization and memory.
Currently, I’m working as a postdoc together with Magnus Pharao Hansen in the project Space and Environmental Adaptation in Language and Society, where we compare spatial language – associated-motion morphology, landscape terminology and Frames of Reference – in different Nahuan languages spoken in different physical environments. I’m responsible for the psycholinguistic work package where we address three sets of questions:
Associated motion: Associated-motion marking is a grammatical means for specifying a motion event as the background for the foreground action described by a verb, and this type of grammar is widespread, but critically underdescribed in the languages of the world. To verify the presence and examine the extension of associated-motion markers in individual languages and thus to provide the ground for crosslinguistic studies in the semantic typology of associated motion, we’ve developed a semantic-grid elicitation tool with 68 videos, the Associated Motion Video Stimuli (Boeg Thomsen & Nielsen 2020). We use this tool to investigate whether and how speakers of different Nahuan languages employ associated motion to indicate motion events as the background for other events. We further ask whether routine use of associated motion affects speakers’ attention to and memory for background motion. Using eye-tracking technology, we measure speakers’ subconscious gaze trajectories while watching and describing videos of events with background motion, and by means of a change-detection experiment, we test whether routine use of associated-motion marking supports memory for background-motion aspects of events.
Landscape terminology: Generic landscape terms such as river, volcano, heath and bay are linguistic tools for segmenting, categorizing and communicating about recurring environmental features, and there is profound crosslinguistic variation in the importance of perceptual aspects such as shape, size and material in the landscape terminologies of different languages. We compare landscape terminology in different Nahuan languages by means of director-matcher games with landforms varying in shape, size and material, and using a non-verbal categorization task with eye-tracking, we test whether differences in landscape terminology are associated with cognitive differences in nonverbal categorization and subconscious visual processing.
Frames of Reference: By means of director-matcher games we compare speakers’ use of different linguistic Frames of Reference to anchor spatial statements in their own bodies (e.g. right-left) vs. in features of the environment (e.g. uphill-downhill, upriver-downriver) in different varieties of Nahuatl, and we use nonverbal memory-under-rotation tasks to test whether such linguistic preferences affect cognitive orientation strategies and memory for direction.
These questions are rooted in our previous work on the Otomanguean language Acazulco Otomí, spoken in a mountain village in Valle de Toluca, Mexico, where we collaborated with Otomí speakers, archaeologists and anthropologists to investigate relations between spatial language and cognition, material culture and cultural routine practices in the surrounding landscape. Our current project further takes up questions from the conference Geographic grounding: Place, direction and landscape in the grammars of the world, which I organized together with Jan Heegård Petersen and Steffen Haurholm-Larsen in 2016. With 26 talks on 20 languages spoken on five different continents, the conference addressed crosslinguistic variation and similarities in coding strategies, dependencies across linguistic subsystems and place-marking systems as parts of ecological and cultural niches.
The diversity in the languages of the world holds keys to understanding the fundamental flexibility in human cognitive potentials, as well as its limits, but many of them are critically endangered. All over the world, minority languages are being lost with the oldest generation in small language communities where the younger generations have been under pressure to turn to a dominating national language. We’ve also seen this in our work with Acazulco Otomí, a severely endangered language that – to a wide extent – has been supplanted by Spanish, and we take part in the revitalization efforts in the community.
I’m a member of the Linguistic Circle’s Committee for Support of Endangered Languages, which gives modest financial support for publications contributing to documentation or revitalization of endangered languages (read more about the committee and the application procedure here).
I have taught the following linguistic courses:
Grammatical Analysis (Linguistics, University of Copenhagen)
Introduction to Linguistics (Linguistics, University of Copenhagen)
Danish Language (Linguistics, University of Copenhagen)
Introduction to Grammatical Analysis (Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen)
Language Acquisition 1: First Language Acquisition (Intercultural pedagogy and Danish as a second language, University of Southern Denmark)
Theoretical and Applied Linguistics 2: Morphology and Syntax (Logopedics and Audiology, University of Southern Denmark)
Psycholinguistics (Linguistics, LAEL, Lancaster University)
Mesoamerican Linguistics (Native American Languages and Culture, University of Copenhagen)
Western Mesoamerica (Native American Languages and Culture, University of Copenhagen)
Fields of supervision:
Children's language acquisition
Language in autism
Space and orientation
(For a list of subject suggestions, please contact me)