Gold Medal: Janet Werker

Janet Werker

Gold Medal:

Janet Werker

The University of British Columbia


The University of British Columbia’s Janet Werker is an internationally-acclaimed scientist whose transformative work reshaped the study of spoken language. One of the world’s leading developmental psychologists, she is Canada Research Chair in Psychology and director of UBC’s Infant Studies Centre. Colleagues and students alike know her as a world-class researcher, outstanding teacher and valued mentor.

Janet Werker is the recipient of SSHRC’s 2015 Gold Medal.

Over the course of a 30-year career, Werker has fundamentally changed how we understand language acquisition. Her work has shown that the foundations of language begin in early infancy, and that the acquisition of two or more languages from birth comes as naturally as learning a single mother tongue. In so doing, she 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.

Werker’s stature as a researcher is reflected in a remarkable publication record, numerous international speaking invitations and noteworthy record of awards and fellowships.

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.

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship.

SSHRC’s highest honour, the prestigious Gold Medal is given to individuals whose sustained leadership, dedication and originality of thought have inspired students and colleagues alike.

Janet Werker shares her thoughts on her work, major changes in the field and the role of the social sciences and humanities in shaping Canada’s future:

Language acquisition is a major theme in your work. What aspect of this research do you personally find most fascinating?

What I find most fascinating is just how prepared babies are to learn language. From the moment they are born, infants prefer to listen to speech over other kinds of sounds. And babies exposed to two languages show familiarity with both.

What do you most want Canadians to understand about your research?

First, that talking to infants, even long before they can understand their first word, is an essential part of language acquisition.

Second, that learning two languages simultaneously from birth is as natural as learning one.

What technological developments or major changes in research knowledge have had the greatest impact on your work? What are the implications for the future of your field?

During my research career, the tools for figuring out what babies know have become increasingly sophisticated. This enables us to answer questions we could never before even begin to ask.

In what area do you see the greatest potential for social sciences and humanities research to make a greater contribution to knowledge?

The social sciences and humanities enable us to reflect on, and to understand, what it means to be human. Making this knowledge explicit allows it to be used to advance the human condition.