Professor Elizabeth Wonnacott

Professor Elizabeth Wonnacott PhD

Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics


My degrees are in Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence (MA(Hons), University of Edinburgh) and Brain and Cognitive Sciences (MA and PhD, University of Rochester, USA). I was a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Experimental Psychology at Oxford and a JRF at Linacre College.

Before joining the Oxford Department of Education, I was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at University of Warwick and then an Associate Professor in the Division of Psychology and Languages Sciences at UCL. 


I teach on the MSc in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition and MSc in Applied Linguistics for Language Teaching. I currently lead the First Language Acquisition and Bilingualism Module and contribute to the Communication of Meaning modules.

I can supervise projects looking at any aspect of language learning, first or second. My work is largely experimental. For example, one methodology I use is to teach learners part of novel language (either a natural language under experimental conditions, or an experimenter-created artificial language) and then test them to see what they have learned, and how this fits with theoretical predictions. Since this type of work is quite technical, I use an apprenticeship style of supervision, where students are encouraged to become involved in ongoing research projects within my group, gradually taking increased ownership of their own part of the study. Students at all levels are also encouraged to join the weekly meetings of my research group to share ideas with other graduate students and early career researchers. 

Research Interests

I am interested in the remarkable phenomenon that is human language. Our species is unique in the capacity to acquire a complex and productive communication system: my research explores how this is achieved, focusing on how learning mechanisms can extract generalizations from observations of probabilistic patterns in the language input. I am interested in how this relates to both the learning of a native language in early childhood, and the learning of other languages later in life, as well as to the development of literacy. I am also interested in what types of language input might best lead to better learning and generalization, and in the implications for education.

What inspired me?

My interest in linguistics started when I studied Latin at school. Our teaching was old fashioned and we studied the grammar very explicitly and systematically. I found that I really enjoyed thinking about language structure, and I began reflecting on the very different process by which I had learned my own native language. I also became interested in whether and how we could get computers to learn languages. These interests took me to study Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence as an undergraduate at Edinburgh. While there, I discovered that the mainstream theoretical perspective within linguistics was the nativist (aka Chomskian) framework, which claims that children are born with innate knowledge about the structure of human language, and that this knowledge is essential to allow them to build a symbolic, rule-based grammar. As my degree progressed, I became increasingly uncomfortable with that perspective and convinced by input-driven statistical learning approaches. This alternative perspective seemed more consistent with the emerging evidence that our knowledge of grammatical 'rules' is actually highly probabilistic and context sensitive. I was fortunate to have lecturers who allowed me to challenge the orthodoxy, and I owe a particular debt to Professor Bob Ladd and Professor Caroline Heckcock who ran a small extra-curricular reading group, which was where I developed many of  my own ideas. My interests then led me to do my graduate work with Professor Elissa Newport, an expert in statistical learning, Child Language Acquisition and age differences in the learning of both first and second languages. These influences continue in my research today. 

Selected publications

Sinkeviciute, R., Brown, H., Brekelmans, G., & Wonnacott, E. (2019) The role of input variability and learner age in second language vocabulary learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 1–26.

Samara, A., Singh, D., & Wonnacott, E. (2018) Statistical learning and spelling: Evidence from an incidental learning experiment with children. Cognition, 182, 25–30. DOI 10.1016

Wonnacott, E., Brown, H., & Nation, K. (2017) Skewing the evidence: The effect of input structure on child and adult learning of lexically-based patterns in an artificial language. Journal of Memory and Language, 95, 46–48. 10.1016/j.jml.2017.01.005 Rcode data

Samara, A. Smith, K., Brown, H., & Wonnacott, E. (2017) Acquiring variation in an artificial language: children and adults are sensitive to socially-conditioned linguistic variation. Cognitive Psychology, 94, 85–114

Wonnacott, E., Boyd, J.K, Thomson. J.J., & Goldberg, A.E. (2012) Input effects on the acquisition of a novel phrasal construction in 5 year olds. Journal of Memory and Language, 66, 458–478.

Awards and distinctions

I was recently awarded funding from the Leverhulme Trust which funds one of my current research projects Language learning as expectation: a discriminative perspective. I have previously been awarded four research grants from the ESRC and held a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship awarded by the British Academy.