Linguist Ailís Cournane leads the Child Language Lab at New York University

“I’ve been lucky enough to find a perfect job where I can be nerdy, creative and social”
Ailis Cournane photo
Linguist Ailís Cournane, specialized in children's language acquisition, holds props from the Child Language Lab that she leads at New York University (photo by Sheng-Fu Wang)

Ailís Cournane made her “first multiword utterance” when she was 17 months old.

Her brothers had tried to scare her away from wandering around the house and hurting herself by inventing a bogeyman.

“Monster (in) basement,” Cournane told her mom. 

Today, Cournane is leading a new child language lab at New York University, studying the complex transformation from “language-less infants” to “fully linguistic adults.” Her path to NYU took her through U of T, where she earned a master’s degree in 2008 and a doctorate seven years later.

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She remembers researchers in the linguistics department, especially her supervisor, Professor Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux, as supportive and inspiring.

“The academic atmosphere in the linguistics department was open to my thesis idea…despite no one working on that topic from an experimental child acquisition perspective, anywhere,” she said.

Cournane is one of a new generation of thinkers, transforming research across the globe. They come from all corners of the world to do their PhD or postdoctoral research at the University of Toronto, drawn by the chance to work with the leading experts in their fields. 

Where do they go from here?

In this third instalment of a new series from U of T News, we turn the spotlight on Cournane.

Below, Cournane talks about her career trajectory – and how the PhD from U of T set her up for the next step.

Why linguistics?

Throughout my teenage years, my goal was to be an artist and art professor.

I chose to study linguistics in addition to studio arts. My uncle, Barry O’Donovan, who was an expert on the Irish language (Gaeilge), passed away around the time I was making decisions about what to study in university. Irish has struggled to survive because of historical political oppression, including periods where the English colonisers made it illegal to speak or teach Irish. The role language plays in cultural and family identity was an early inspiration to me, though my linguistic interests have progressively moved further and further from that origin. 

What aspect of child language acquisition do you specialize in? What interests you the most about the process?

I specialize in how children learn what complex words and structures mean, and how this learning process relates to the way languages change over time. My child language experiments and corpus studies focus on linguistic modality (e.g., must, have to, should, maybe), an area of language related to tense and aspect. Modality is a grammatical category expressing the possibility or necessity that an event occur (e.g. You must brush your teeth), or that a reality is true (e.g. It must be raining).

What interests me most about studying child language development is the inherent linguistic creativity. Essentially, we all created our own mental grammar by using our innate cognitive capacities to hone into the language use of humans in our learning environment (our caregivers, older siblings). The problem itself is fascinating and complex.

Out of curiosity, what was your first word?

Let me call my mom…

Ok, she says my three older brothers kept her so busy she didn’t write down my first word. She thinks it was “mama,” a highly probable first word, but she would say that wouldn’t she?

What she does remember clearly is my first multiword utterance – the first time I put words together. My older brothers were tasked with making sure I didn’t toddle into the basement so they told me there was a monster down there. At 17 months, I reported “Monster (in) basement.”

How did your time at U of T prepare you for what came next in your career?

The linguistics professors at U of T are an inspiring bunch of scientists, as are the graduate students.

The academic atmosphere in the linguistics department was open to my thesis idea – to use child language studies to test whether children play a role in how languages change over time – despite no one working on that topic from an experimental child acquisition perspective (anywhere). It is a department that, to a large extent, lets students develop their own projects. My supervisor, Professor Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux, was especially encouraging and supportive.

Ailis Cournane at NYU picture
Ailís Cournane in front of the linguistics department on the NYU campus, in Greenwich Village (photo by Sheng-Fu Wang)

What did you do here when you weren’t hitting the books, i.e. for fun?

I liked to bike around, do yoga, sometimes go indoor climbing. Eating and drinking out was especially great in Toronto so I did as much of that as time and money allowed.

For food, I miss the ramen places in particular. There’s comparable ramen in Manhattan, of course, but you’ll have to wait an hour for a seat, and it’ll cost you more than double.

What’s your favourite word or expression?

Maybe. It’s literally “may+be,” wrenched from the sentence (historically, that’s more or less what happened – it comes from “It may be that…”), giving speakers a particularly simple way to express possibility.

It is a deceptively simple word. We’re so familiar with it that it’s easy to take for granted that humans can express something as abstract as e.g., the future possibility of outcomes (like whether it will rain tomorrow, or whether we’ll decide to go to the museum) in tiny, neatly packaged symbols (like “maybe”).  Also, I study its development in children, and they use it in adult-like context from about age 2, making it among the earliest modal words children use productively (ditto for comparable words in other languages).

Why academia? Did you always imagine becoming a teacher?

I’ve always loved school so staying in it forever was a natural choice, right? One of my older brothers used to regularly get me to do his homework because I didn’t realise that I was being played. I just thought the math problems were good fun.

In retrospect, I wanted to be a professor long before I knew exactly what that entailed.

What do you do now at NYU?

I “professor” – I now know what this entails! This is the end of my second semester here so much of my time has been devoted to creating new course materials for courses that I teach here (Language & Mind, Language Acquisition, my first PhD seminar), and setting up the new Child Language Lab, which I direct. For the lab, I’ve done everything from order furniture and choose paint colours to hire research assistants and buy a nifty eye-tracking device.

I’m also advising several graduate student projects, here at NYU and at the University of Maryland.

I’ve been lucky enough to find a perfect job where I can be nerdy, creative and social. It has so far been very demanding, but I’m gradually adjusting to that aspect of the job.

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