Retired UH Manoa professor honored as linguistics pioneer

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Gregg Takayama, 956-6936
Communications Director
Posted: Aug 27, 2008

Dr. Ann M. Peters, a retired professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, was honored at an international symposium last month for her achievements in the linguistics field.

The July 30 symposium was held at the XI Congress of the International Association for the Study of Child Language at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. The conference reviewed her lifetime achievements in the study of children‘s acquisition of language, discussed perspectives on the complexity of language acquisition, and recognized Peters‘ pioneering efforts in the field.

"Dr. Peters' research has had a profound impact on our understanding of the complexities and variance exhibited in child language," said Associate Professor Kamil Ud Deen. "Rather than accept the standard view that child language is guided by an innate grammar and is thus relatively uniform, Dr. Peters challenged this view with empirical data from a variety of sources. Her research is held up today as a model for those interested in individual variation between children, and the role of social cognition in the acquisition of language."

The eleven speakers recounted Peters' contributions over her 40-year career in research and teaching language and linguistics. Peters‘ ideas have been invaluable to her colleagues: her vision has contributed to moving the field away from the assumption that all children learn language the same way. Her detailed, child-centered studies have provided evidence that children go through a long and individuated process of perception and construction of their language system. For example, Peters observed that some children begin this process by producing, not individual words, but longer chunks or phrases — such as "look-at-that".

Peters also found that, at a particular age, a given child may have only partially acquired certain words or grammatical notions, representing them "fuzzily" rather than clearly, as adults do. Looking across the sub-fields of linguistics, Peters found that each aspect of the language acquisition process impinges on every other: sounds on vocabulary, vocabulary on grammar. By imposing only strictly necessary linguistic assumptions about children's productions, Peters has made researchers aware of the difficulties children encounter in identifying their first useful linguistic units, an issue that still faces researchers today.