Assistant Professor
Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies,
School of Humanities, College of Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences

Director of LEAP Lab

Office: 6592 1759

Biographical Profile

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. He joined the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at NTU in late 2013, and founded the LEAP lab.
Research Interests

LEAP Lab is an acronym for Language Evolution, Acquisition, and Plasticity. Consequently three related strands of research are carried out:

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.

Language Acquisition

We study infants' abilities to implicitly detect relations in sequences of speech sounds, and relate these abilities to individual developmental trajectories in language abilities. We explore the possibility that brain mechanisms become attuned to the statistical properties of a given natural language to optimally support the identification of structural linguistic units early on, accounting for fast discovery of lexico-syntactic aspects of language in preverbal children acquiring one or more languages.

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".
Research Interest in the Neuroscience of Learning and Education

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. We recently started collaborating with local childcare providers to devise training and intervention programs informed by cognitive and neuroscience.