Cynthia L. Fisher



  • 2121 Beckman Institute
  • 405 North Mathews Avenue
  • Urbana, Illinois 61801


Cynthia Fisher received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. She is a professor in the U of I Department of Psychology, and a part-time faculty member in the Beckman Institute Cognitive Science group. Her fields of professional interest are language acquisition, speech perception, and language comprehension.


Visiting Scholar, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, NL (1999); Shannon Director's Award, NICHD (1997); Arnold O. Beckman Research Award (1996); American Association of University Women Fellowship (1988-1989).


In learning a language a child cracks a code, interpreting sequences of arbitrary elements (words) without prior knowledge of the words or their rules of combination. During only a few years of ordinary exposure to the use of a language, a child becomes a native speaker, capable of combining and recombining words in various syntactic structures to speak and understand entirely new messages. Fisher's work focuses on three related questions about this feat of learning: First, how do children develop representations and processes for identifying spoken words? Second, how do children learn to identify syntactic patterns in speech? And third, how do children use their developing knowledge of syntactic patterns to assign meanings to sentences? In all three areas, her work attempts to determine how a young language learner could be led by relatively superficial or perceptible features of utterances to develop ever more abstract representations of language.

For example, Fisher's research on sentence interpretation reveals that even 2-year-olds can use the structure of a sentence to constrain its interpretation. If we remove relational, semantic information from a sentence by using an unfamiliar (made-up) verb, children can still interpret the sentence in accord with its structure: They interpret transitive (e.g., "She's pilking her over there!") and intransitive verbs ("She's pilking over there!") as referring to different aspects of the same motion event. Recent data also suggest that 2-year-olds can use word order in transitive sentences to constrain interpretations of sentences containing unfamiliar verbs. This work suggests that children can construct quite abstract representations of sentence structure at an early age, and can use these representations of structure to narrow their choices in interpreting a sentence. Research on the perception of spoken words and sentences suggests that flexible lexical representations, both context-sensitive and permitting abstraction across contexts, are a natural result of mechanisms by which language processing systems adapt to reflect linguistic experience.

To examine children's representations and interpretations of linguistic input, Fisher uses a variety of methods to tap the growing lexical and syntactic knowledge of children between one and four years of age. These methods include tracking the direction of children's gaze as they watch two synchronized videos and listen to a sentence that describes only one of them, asking children to select a named object, and measuring the accuracy with which children can identify and repeat spoken words or sentences.

Fisher's major sources of funding are the NIMH, NICHD, and NSF.


  • 2014
    • Dautriche, I.; Cristia, A.; Brusini, P.; Yuan, S.; Fisher, C.; Christophe, A., Toddlers Default to Canonical Surface-to-Meaning Mapping When Learning Verbs. Child Development 2014, 85, (3), 1168-1180, DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12183.

    • Song, H. J.; Baillargeon, R.; Fisher, C., The Development of Infants' Use of Novel Verbal Information When Reasoning About Others' Actions. Plos One 2014, 9, (3), 10, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0092387.

    • Low, K. A.; Fabiani1, M.; Hyde, D. C.; Baillargeon, R.; Fisher, C.; Gratton, G., Phoneme Processing Pathways in Infants Revealed by Fast Optical Imaging. Psychophysiology 2014, 51, S52-S53

  • 2013
    • Connor, M.; Fisher, C.; Rorth, D., Starting from Scratch in Semantic Role Labeling: Early Indirect Supervision, In Cognitive Aspects of Computational Language Acquisition Villavicencio, A., Poibeau, T., Korhonen, A., Alishahi, A., Eds.; Springer-Verlag, New York, 2013.

  • 2012
    • Gertner, Y.; Fisher, C., Predicted Errors in Children's Early Sentence Comprehension. Cognition 2012, 124, 85-94.

    • Scott, R. M.; Fisher, C., 2.5-Year-Olds Use Cross-Situational Consistency to Learn Verbs under Referential Uncertainty. Cognition 2012, 122, (2), 163-180.

    • Yuan, S.; Fisher, C.; Snedeker, J., Counting the Nouns: Simple Structural Cues to Verb Meaning. Child Development 2012, 83, (4), 1382-1399.

  • 2011
    • Qi, Z.; Yuan, S.; Fisher, C., Where does verb bias come from? Experience with particular verbs affects online sentence processing, Proceedings of the 35th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, Cascadilla Press: Boston, MA, 2011.

    • Yuan, S.; Fisher, C., You can stipe the picg and nerk the fork: Learning to use verbs to predict nouns, Proceedings of the 35th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, Cascadilla Press: Boston, MA, 2011.

    • Chambers, K. E.; Onishi, K. H.; Fisher, C., Representations for Phonotactic Learning in Infancy. Language Learning and Development 2011, 7, 287-308.

  • 2010
    • Chambers, K. E.; Onishi, K. H.; Fisher, C., A Vowel Is a Vowel: Generalizing Newly Learned Phonotactic Constraints to New Contexts. Journal of Experimental Psychology-Learning Memory and Cognition 2010, 36, (3), 821-828.

    • Fisher, C.; Gertner, Y.; Scott, R.; Yuan, S., Syntactic bootstrapping. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 2010, 1, 143-149.

    • Connor, M.; Gertner, Y.; Fisher, C.; Roth, D. Starting from scratch in Semantic Role Labeling., Proceedings of the 48th Annual Meeting Association for Computational Linguistics, 2010; pp 989-998. 

  • 2009
    • Connor, M., Gertner, Y., Fisher, C., Roth, D. , Minimally Supervised Model of Early Language Acquisition, Proceedings of the Annual Conference on Computational Natural Language Learning, 2009.

    • Scott, R. M.; Fisher, C., Two-year-olds use distributional cues to interpret transitivity-alternating verbs. Language and Cognitive Processes 2009, 24, (6), 777-803.

    • Yuan, S.; Fisher, C., "Really? She Blicked the Baby?": Two-Year-Olds Learn Combinatorial Facts About Verbs by Listening. Psychological Science 2009, 20, (5), 619-626.

    • Warker, J. A.; Xu, Y.; Dell, G. S.; Fisher, C., Speech errors reflect the phonotactic constraints in recently spoken syllables, but not in recently heard syllables. Cognition 2009, 112, (1), 81-96.

  • 2008
    • Song, H. J.; Onishi, K. H.; Baillargeon, R.; Fisher, C., Can an agent's false belief be corrected by an appropriate communication? Psychological reasoning in 18-month-old infants. Cognition 2008, 109, (3), 295-315.

    • Connor, M.; Gertner, Y.; Fisher, C.; Roth, D., Baby SRL:  Modeling Early Language Acquisition, Proceedings of the Annual Conference on Computational Natural Language Learning 2008.

    • Fisher, C.; Gertner, Y.; Scott, R.; Yuan, S., Verb learning and the early development of sentence comprehension. International Journal of Psychology 2008, 43, (3-4), 177-177.

  • 2007
    • Song, H. J.; Fisher, C., Discourse prominence effects on 2.5-year-old children's interpretation of pronouns. Lingua 2007, 117, (11), 1959-1987.

  • 2006
    • Fisher, C.; Song, H., Who's the subject? Sentence structures as analogs of verb meaning. In Action meets word: How children learn the meanings of verbs; Hirsh-Pasek, K.; Golinkoff, R. M., Eds.; Oxford University Press: New York, 2006 .

    • Fisher, C.; Klinger, S. L.; Song, H., What does syntax say about space? 26-month-olds use sentence structure in learning spatial terms. Cognition 2006, 101, B19-B29.

    • Gertner, Y.; Fisher, C.; Eisengart, J., Learning words and rules: Abstract knowledge of word order in early sentence comprehension. Psychological Science 2006, 17, (8), 684-691.

  • 2005
    • Song, H.; Fisher, C., Who's "she"? Discourse structure influences preschoolers' pronoun interpretation. Journal of Memory & Language 2005, 52, 29-57.

    • Song, H.; Baillargeon; Fisher, C., Can infants attribute to an agent a disposition to perform a particular action? Cognition 2005, 98, B45-B55.

    • Gleitman, L. R.; Fisher, C. Universal aspects of word learning. In The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky; McGilvray, J., Ed.; Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp 123-142.

  • 2003
    • Chambers, K. E., Onishi, K. H., & Fisher, C. (2003). Infants learn phonotactic regularities from brief auditory experience, Cognition, 87, B69-B77.

  • 2002
    • Fisher, C. (2002). The role of abstract syntactic knowledge in language acquisition: A reply to Tomasello (2000). Cognition, 82, 259-278.

    • Onishi, K. H., Chambers, K. E., & Fisher, C. (2002). Learning phonotactic constraints from brief auditory experience. Cognition, 83, B13-B23.

    • Fisher, C. (2002). Structural limits on verb mapping: The role of abstract structure in 2.5-year-olds' interpretations of novel verbs. Developmental Science, 5,56-65.

    • Fisher, C., & Gleitman, L. R. (2002). Language acquisition. In H. F. Pashler (Series Ed.) and C. R. Gallistel (Volume Ed.), Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology, Vol 3: Learning and motivation (3rd ed., pp. 445-496). New York: Wiley.


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