Janet F. Werker

Janet F. Werker
Janet F.
Computer and Cognitive Science
Benjamin Franklin Medal

The University of British Columbia │ Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


For charting how children learn the sounds of languages and how their brains change and adapt in critical ways as they do so.  Her work helps us understand typical and atypical human development.

Newborn babies make sounds, notably crying, but also cooing or gurgling. But how do infants learn to communicate in more sophisticated ways? How do they begin to recognize the basic sounds of language and their meanings? What’s going on in their brains when they learn and acquire language? Are there particular phases of development when the brain is more receptive to language? Janet Werker is attempting to answer questions like these in her research. She is interested in typical development, but also children in different language environments, such as those growing up in bilingual households, or those with developmental disabilities who may interpret sound differently.  

Werker has studied babies just a few hours after birth as well as children as old as 5 years to answer her questions about the origins of language, using creative approaches to understand what’s going on. In addition to clever behavioral techniques, Werker employs electrophysiological methods, such as event-related potential (ERP) studies, which measure brain response to specific stimuli with an electroencephalogram. Another tool is noninvasive optical neural imaging using near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). Such techniques allow neural data to be collected without disturbing the child.  

Her research has demonstrated that children come into the world already well-equipped with the tools for language. Even before they’re able to speak their first words, infants take a keen interest in listening to speech and watching people speak. Their response to speech sounds is far greater than to other types of complex sounds. Babies can distinguish among many different language sounds, even those not in their native language. A crucial discovery that Werker made early in her career is that they begin to lose that capacity around nine months of age, as they home in on their native language and its sounds and use those differences to learn words. In a bilingual language environment, however, they remain more open longer to a variety of sound contrasts. 

As a creative and innovative scientist, Werker has extended this work into related areas. One of her most influential contributions is her work on critical periods (CPs), which are developmental windows during which a child's brain is particularly receptive to environmental input. Her 2015 paper on the topic demonstrated how neurobiological plasticity underlies CPs and enables language acquisition. She has also investigated the role of prenatal exposure to certain antidepressants on perceptual learning, including as mediated through gene expression. 

Growing up in a small Kansas town, Werker studied psychology and social relations first at Cornell University, then completed her B.A. at Harvard University in 1974. Moving to the University of British Columbia for graduate school, she earned her M.A. in 1979 and her Ph.D. in 1982, both in psychology. It was in the culturally diverse city of Vancouver, British Columbia, where more than half the population speaks a language other than or in addition to English, that Werker came by her fascination with language acquisition. She went on to teach as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia for four years before returning in 1986 to the University of British Columbia, where she has worked ever since. For 21 years she was a Canada Research Chair in Psychology, and is now a University Killam Professor, as well as co-founder of the university’s Language Sciences Global Research Excellence Institute, recently stepping down as co-director. 

Werker’s research over her 40-year career has changed our fundamental understanding of language acquisition and development. She has been recognized with various prizes and fellowships, including the Gold Medal Impact Award from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and a William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science. She has been named a fellow of many honorary societies, including the Royal Society of Canada, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the Cognitive Science Society, and the National Academy of Sciences, and she has been inducted as an Officer of the Order of Canada. 

The study of how infants learn to speak and acquire languages is central to our understanding of human development as well as important to teachers and new parents. Janet Werker’s research has been instrumental in demonstrating how infants come prepared to attend to the sounds that compose the languages of the world, and how exposure to the languages that surround them hones their perceptual abilities over the first years of life. This critical period of plasticity can shift, depending on biological and environmental circumstances. Dr. Werker has also shown how the ability to make sounds is tied to the ability to decode linguistically relevant sounds. Her research has wide implications for understanding language development, plasticity, and critical periods, as well as applied implications for bilingualism and a variety of clinical conditions.