Elissa Newport, professor and chair of brain and cognitive sciences and George Eastman Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for her distinguished work on understanding how humans acquire language. The election was held this week at the 141st annual meeting of the academy. Membership is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded to a U.S. scientist. Newport was also recently elected to chair the psychology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“We’re very proud to have Elissa’s extraordinary efforts recognized this way,” says Charles E. Phelps, provost of the University of Rochester. “Her exploration into language acquisition has been an example of the exceptional research the University community produces. How she manages to accomplish all of that professionally and still carry out an extensive and valuable set of roles within the University is amazing. I admire her for her success and am grateful to her for the many ways she serves the University of Rochester as well.”
Newport’s research involves the study of how humans learn both spoken and sign languages to understand the language-learning process. Her research settled a once-controversial hypothesis that there are crucial periods in children’s development when they are “primed” to learn. Newport found that there is a distinct curve showing that fluent language skills arise when a child is exposed to the language very early, but the ability to learn a language declines thereafter. Even at age four, a child learning a new language will have noticeable differences from a native speaker.
Her most recent research focuses on how young children accomplish such remarkable learning. With Richard Aslin, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at Rochester, she has suggested a new approach to language learning, called “statistical learning.” With Ted Supalla, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, linguistics, and American Sign Language, and Daphne Bavelier, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, also at Rochester, Newport has begun to investigate brain mechanisms underlying the acquisition of sign languages.
Newport received her doctorate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and was a Sloan Fellow in Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Penn and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been on the faculty at the University of California at San Diego, the University of Illinois, and, since 1988, the University of Rochester. Her research has received the Claude Pepper Award of Excellence from the National Institutes of Health. She is currently a series editor for MIT Press and serves on the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences, and she is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Cognitive Science Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation, signed by Abraham Lincoln, which calls on the Academy to act as an official advisor to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.