Academic Profile

Academic Profile

Asst Prof Luca Onnis

Assistant Professor, School of Humanities

Asst Prof Luca Onnis

Luca Onnis received his PhD in Psychology in 2004 from the University of Warwick, under the supervision of Nick Chater. He was a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University from 2004 to 2008, working with Morten Christiansen, Michael Spivey, and Shimon Edelman. He was Assistant and then Associate professor at the University of Hawaii from 2008 to 2013, where he also directed the Centre for Second Language Research. He is also the director of Language Evolution, Acquisition and Plasticity Lab, or LEAP lab at NTU since 2013..

Luca’s research focuses on mechanisms of learning, and how these apply to language acquisition. In particular, he is interested in mechanisms of statistical learning (SL). SL helps a language learner identify regularities in language — for example, in English “the” is followed by a noun. Luca has contributed to the discovery of certain statistical features in caregivers’ speech that make language learnable to their children. These features are reflected in the learning mechanisms already identified. In other words, the structure of parental speech tells us a lot about the learning mechanisms children use to absorb information in this speech.

His approach to research uses multiple methods:

Computer simulations – to discover how learning mechanisms are used to take information from speech.
Use of behavioural paradigms – to see learners’ responses to certain statistical regularities.
Brain imaging – to show links in the brain between statistical- and language learning abilities.
Comparing young to adult language learners – to examine how language experience affects later language learning.
Luca’s recent studies are on a variety of topics, including: the effect of an adult’s language background on how they learn new languages, the structure of caregiver speech directed at typically and atypically developing children, and bilingualism and its effects on learning mechanisms.
Research Interests
Keywords: Cognitive Science; Statistical Learning; Computational modeling; First and Second Language acquisition; Language evolution.

LEAP Lab is an acronym for Language Evolution, Acquisition, and Plasticity:
Language Evolution
The goal is to explore possible mechanisms of language evolution and change, toward a common framework that explains language evolution, development, and processing. In the lab we simulate language evolution/change with computer simulations (in silico sims), as well as with human learners engaged in evolutionary language games (in vivo sims). Language structures may have become optimized for the cognitive processes that subserve them. Then, perhaps, the language faculty adapted to pre-existing cognitive functions. Over time languages of the world may have evolved to become more learnable by the brain.

Early Language Acquisition
In the first years of life children develop fundamental cognitive and linguistic abilities that form the basis for future learning, schooling, and socializing. Cascading effects starting early in infancy can percolate from language skills to educational levels. Thus, understanding basic mechanisms and environmental conditions affecting human learning deserves attention and appropriate research. We focus on individual differences in implicit sequential learning as well as individual differences in caregiver linguistic input to the child as predictors of language outcomes in the child.

Language Plasticity in Adults
We learn as children and we continue learning as adults. Throughout our lives, the brain shows a remarkable cognitive reserve for the ability to learn. Yet adults learn from the environment in ways that often differ from children. At LEAP we ask how such differences affect the nature of what they learn. The traditional explanation for differences in first versus second language learning is that children lose some fundamental abilities as they grow. In our lab, we take a different approach: we see L2 learning difficulties as a natural consequence of adult gains in cognitive capacities and knowledge that optimize learning for the first language, and not as an intrinsic loss of learning abilities. We call this "the effect of learning on learning".
Current Projects
  • An Exploratory Study On Grammatical Features In Academic Written Discourse Of Singaporean Undergraduates
  • Broad cognitive and social benefits of reading habits among Singaporeans
  • Caregiver interactions and perceptual learning in language acquisition
  • Distribution-based Learning of Speech Categories: An Intervention Study
  • Effects of the statistical distribution in the grammar of the first language and cognitive factors on the learning and on-line processing of the artificial grammar
  • How language mixes contribute to effective bilingualism and biliteracy in Singapore
  • Impact of Bilingualism and Socioeconomic Status on Basic Learning Skills in the Early Years
  • Language and Bilingualism (Infancy)
  • Technologies for 21st Century Learning and Education
Selected Publications
  • Lotem, A., Kolodny, O., Halpern, J.Y., Onnis, L., Edelman, S. (2016). The bottleneck may be the solution, not the problem. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39.
  • Onnis, Luca. (2013). The bilingual brain allows new insights and predictions on human capabilities. Comment on "The Bilingual Brain: Flexibility and Control in the Human Cortex" by Buchweitz and Prat. Physics of Life Reviews, 10(4), 452-453.
  • Onnis, L., Thiessen, E. (2013). Language experience changes subsequent learning. Cognition, 126(2), 268-284.
  • Christiansen, MH, Conway, C., & Onnis, L. (2012). Similar neural correlates for language and sequential learning: evidence from event-related brain potentials. Language and Cognitive Processes, 27(2), 231-256.
  • Goldstein, M., Waterfall, H., Lotem, A., Halpern, J., Schwade, J., Onnis, L., Edelman, S. (2010). General cognitive principles for learning structure in time and space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(6), 249-258.

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