Language Expert Janet Werker Awarded SHHRC Impact Gold

Janet Werker
Janet Werker (Photo: SSHRC)

A developmental psychologist whose study of how – and when — people acquire language has had enormous implications across the worlds of education, clinical practice and parenting has received the Gold Medal in Canada’s annual Impact Awards. It’s more than an honor – with the Gold Medal winner Janet Werker will receive $100,000 in research funding.

The prizes, given by Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council, or SSHRC, aim to highlight achievements by social scientists and humanities scholars drawn from a list of candidates nominated by Canadian universities. In addition to the Gold Medal, prizes were awarded Monday in categories for Talent, Insight, Connection and Partnership. The academics honored work on a variety of issues – refugees, water policy, homelessness and government surveillance – that dominate news reports every day.

Werker is the Canada Research Chair in Psychology and director of Infant Studies Centre at the University of British Columbia. “My research,” she explains on the UBC website, “focuses on understanding the roots of language acquisition, by studying speech perception in infancy, the mechanisms by which native speech sound categories are acquired, and how speech perception supports early word learning.”

She has gained particular prominence for her work studying how children – even in the womb – learn more than one language. Noting that learning several languages is natural for kids, she told her university’s public affairs department that “From the moment they are born, infants choose to listen to speech over other kinds of sounds, to watch talking faces over other kinds of visual stimuli – and their brains respond in a special way to speech over equally complex sounds.”

SSHRC applauded Werker’s impact. “[S]he has had enormous influence on child development, parenting, education and clinical practice, both in Canada and around the world. The concept of very early language learning—even before birth—is now understood as a baseline in the field.” She has received UBC’s Alumni Prize for Research in the Social Sciences, Killam Research Prize and Jacob Biely Research Prize (the university’s top research award). She is a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the Cognitive Science Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Werker in turn applauded the role that a liberal education can have on society. “The social sciences and humanities enable us to reflect on, and to understand, what it means to be human,” SSHRC quoted Werker. “Making this knowledge explicit allows it to be used to advance the human condition.”

Recipients of the other awards

The Talent Award went to geographer Jeremy Schmidt, who has been a foundational figure in creating the field of water ethics, and increasingly important concern as the world’s population increases and its groundwater is depleted. “His findings,” according to SSHRC, “are the first to explicitly link the use of the social sciences by North American policy-makers to the water challenges faced in jurisdictions like Alberta, where his fieldwork is focused. Schmidt was nominated by Dalhousie University; he now teaches at Carleton University. The award recognizes outstanding research achievement and career potential from a SSHRC doctoral or postdoctoral fellowship or scholarship holder. Like the other non-Gold awards, this prize comes with $50,000 for further research.

David Lyon, a sociologist at Queen’s University, received the Insight Award. A research chair and director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s, Lyon pioneered the study of surveillance, drawing critical attention to the implications of life in a “surveillance society.”

The Connection Award went to education professor Stephen Gaetz, who directs the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University. Gaetz leads the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), as well as the renowned Homeless Hub—the world’s first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research. The Connection Award recognizes an individual or a team whose work engages the campus or the community nd which has had demonstrable impact.

Susan McGrath, director of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, was given the Partnership Award. She has been instrumental in the establishment of the Refugee Research Network, which connects researchers and practitioners around the world. Given the attention paid to refugees at the moment, McGrath offers a clarion call for social science to shoulder part of the effort to address the issue: “The current global refugee crisis is not going away,” she told SSHRC. “Addressing these tough social, political and economic problems requires the collaborative knowledge of both social scientists and natural scientists.”

This report includes language drawn from SSHRC’s reporting on the Impact Awards.

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