Highlighting Faculty Member Melissa Paquette-Smith


Date published: 01/12/22

Dr. Paquette-Smith conducts research in two distinct areas of cognitive science. Her basic research program (described here) seeks to understand how children and adults perceive and produce speech. Her applied research examines how teachers can optimize student learning in the classroom.

Melissa Paquette-Smith

No matter where we grew up or what languages we speak, we all have an accent. Accents can be a rich source of social information. A person’s accent can tell us where they are from, what other languages they speak and even who they are friends with. But how did we learn to speak the way that we do? And how do we understand and evaluate the speech of people who speak differently?

The question of “how” we learn to speak the way we do has fascinated sociolinguists for decades, and has recently attracted more attention from developmental psychologists, like Dr. Paquette-Smith. The answer to this question is complex, in part because the speaking styles of communities are continually changing, but also because individual people’s speaking styles shift as they relocate to new communities or come in contact with new people. Thus, speech is simultaneously changing on a broader (population level) as well as on an individual level. Dr. Paquette-Smith and her team are interested in understanding what influences the way we speak and how those influences might change over time. 

Dr. Paquette-Smith’s lab is also investigating other related questions such as, how do we learn to comprehend, or adapt to, the speech of speakers from different accent communities. As adults, we adapt relatively quickly to new accents. However, we have the benefit of already speaking the language we are listening to and we can use additional information, like the context of the sentence to help us comprehend. But what about children who are just beginning to learn language? For example, how does a child figure out that when their Canadian dad says, “bus” and their Irish mom says “boss”, they are referring to the same object (a large vehicle)? But when their Canadian dad says “bus” and “bass” these are actually different words that refer to different objects (one a vehicle and the other a type of fish). This is not an uncommon situation! Children growing up in a diverse multicultural society regularly encounter people that speak with different accents. Part of Dr. Paquette-Smith’s work looks at how children and adults adapt to unfamiliar accents and if there are ways to “speed up” or optimize learning from speakers who speak differently.

In addition to conducting basic research on speech perception and production, Dr. Paquette-Smith and her team at the Teaching, Learning and Communication Lab also conduct applied research in pedagogy. In this line of work, they investigate how to optimize student learning in real college classes. For more information about this work visit their lab website.

Dr. Paquette-Smith is a Lecturer with Potential Security of Employment in the Department of Psychology at UCLA and the director of the Teaching, Learning and Communication Lab. Prior to teaching at UCLA, she completed her PhD in Developmental Psychology at the University of Toronto. She also holds an MA in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Biology from the University of Toronto.

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