Linguistics and Language at Brown

A multidisciplinary approach to language

Language is one of the most complex cognitive capacities that humans possess. Language articulation and perception involves the physical properties of the human vocal tract and ears, but also of the neural underpinning of our perception. Understanding meaning requires understanding the syntax and semantics of language, as well as the social nuances of what information one is expected to provide. Language acquisition by children affects and is affected by their cognitive development. All this is to say that the study of human language is a fundamentally multidisciplinary endeavor and one that therefore requires a broad range of different methodologies working both in parallel and in collaboration.

The CLPS department at Brown embodies this perspective, offering PhD programs in Linguistics as well as Cognitive Science and bringing together researchers studying different aspects of language including phonology and language change, semantics, pragmatics, syntax-semantics interface, speech and lexical processing, child language acquisition. the neural basis of language, and language and memory. We use a diverse range of methodologies including formal modeling, linguistic fieldwork, neurolinguistic methods including fMRI (both with normal participants and aphasic patients), psycholinguistic methods including reading time and eye-tracking, and quantitative corpus methods and computational modeling. Beyond this, the broader intellectual environment in the department offers great opportunities for students to draw on work spanning common disciplinary boundaries.

Important links


New paper published by Luchkina et al.: Eighteen‐month‐olds selectively generalize words from accurate speakers to novel contexts (Dev Sci 2018;e12663)

Congratulations to Elena, Dave, and Jim for a paper published recently in Developmental Science! The title and abstract are as follows:

Eighteen‐month‐olds selectively generalize words from accurate speakers to novel contexts.

The present studies examine whether and how 18‐month‐olds use informants’ accuracy to acquire novel labels for novel objects and generalize them to a new context. In Experiment 1, two speakers made statements about the labels of familiar objects. One used accurate labels and the other used inaccurate labels. One of these speakers then introduced novel labels for two novel objects. At test, toddlers saw those two novel objects and heard an unfamiliar voice say one of the labels provided by the speaker. Only toddlers who had heard the novel labels introduced by the accurate speaker looked at the appropriate novel object above chance. Experiment 2 explored possible mechanisms underlying this difference in generalization. Rather than making statements about familiar objects’ labels, both speakers asked questions about the objects’ labels, with one speaker using accurate labels and the other using inaccurate labels. Toddlers’ generalization of novel labels for novel objects was at chance for both speakers, suggesting that toddlers do not simply associate hearing the accurate label with the reliability of the speaker. We discuss these results in terms of potential mechanisms by which children learn and generalize novel labels across contexts from speaker reliability.

The full paper can be found here. In addition, more information about Elena can be found on her professional website

New paper published by Masapollo et al.: Articulatory peripherality modulates relative attention to the mouth during visual vowel discrimination (J Acoust Soc Am. 141(5): 4037)

Congratulations to Matt, Lauren, and Jim for a paper published recently in the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America! The title and abstract are as follows:

Articulatory peripherality modulates relative attention to the mouth during visual vowel discrimination.

Masapollo, Polka, and Ménard (2016) have recently reported that adults from different language backgrounds show robust directional asymmetries in unimodal visual-only vowel discrimination: a change in mouth-shape from one associated with a relatively less peripheral vowel to one associated with a relatively more peripheral vowel (in F1-F2 articulatory/acoustic vowel space) results in significantly better performance than a change in the reverse direction. In the present study, we used eye-tracking methodology to examine the gaze behavior of English-speaking subjects while they performed Masapollo et al.’s visual vowel discrimination task. We successfully replicated this directional effect using Masapollo et al.’s visual stimulus materials, and found that subjects deployed selective attention to the oral region compared to the ocular region of the model speaker’s face. In addition, gaze fixations to the mouth were found to increase while subjects viewed the more peripheral vocalic articulations compared to the less peripheral articulations, perhaps due to their larger, more extreme oral-facial kinematic patterns. This bias in subjects’ pattern of gaze behavior may contribute to asymmetries in visual vowel perception.

The full paper can be found here.

Talk (02/27/2018): Roey Gafter (Ben Gurion University)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 12:00pm
Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center, Petteruti Lounge (Rm 201),
    75 Waterman Street, Providence RI

Roey Gafter from Ben Gurion University will give a talk on ethnicity and language in Israel among Hebrew speakers. This is a wide-audience talk, which will be followed by a more linguistic-y talk in LLL (separate notice and abstract will be sent that week). Details of his talk are as follows:

Ethnic identity in Israel and variation in Modern Hebrew: A linguist’s perspective

Among Israelis, Jewish ethnicity is often organized around a binary distinction between Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent) and Mizrahi Jews (Jews of Middle Eastern descent). In this talk, I explore how Hebrew is spoken by Israelis of different ethnicities, and show that framing ethnicity as an Ashkenazi-Mizrahi binary hides many meaningful distinctions, both linguistically and socially. I discuss the aspects of Hebrew accents most strongly associated with Mizrahi identity and show that their history and the social dynamic in Israel have imbued them with a rich social meaning that goes far beyond a simple ethnic marker. I then discuss Hebrew features that are not stereotypically associated with ethnicity and show how they can be used in the construction of specific ethnic personae.

More information about the speaker can be found here.

Lab Meeting (11/13/2017): Milena Rabovsky (Freie Universität Berlin)

For those who might be interested, Milena Rabovsky, a Postdoctoral Researcher (Marie Curie fellow) at the Neurocomputation and Neuroimaging Unit of Freie Universität Berlin (Germany), will present on work she conducted with McClelland at Stanford during Amitai Shenhav’s lab meeting. Details of her talk are as follows:

N400 amplitudes as change in a probabilistic representation of meaning: A neural network model

The N400 component of the event-related brain potential has aroused much interest because it is thought to provide an online measure of meaning processing in the brain. Yet, the underlying process of meaning construction remains incompletely understood. In the talk, I will present a computationally explicit account of this process and the emerging representation of sentence meaning. We simulate N400 amplitudes as the change induced by an incoming stimulus in an implicit and probabilistic representation of meaning captured by the hidden unit activation pattern in a neural network model of sentence comprehension, and propose that the process underlying the N400 also drives implicit learning in the network. We account for a broad range of empirically observed N400 effects which have previously been difficult to capture within a single integrated framework (Rabovsky, Hansen, & McClelland, bioRxiv).

More information about the speaker can be found here.

Guest Lecture (10/27/2017): Tore Nesset (Universitetet i Tromsø)

Friday, October 27, 2017 3:00pm
J.W. Wilson, Room 201, 75 Waterman Street, Providence RI

For those who might be interested, Tore Nesset from the University of Tromsø will be giving a guest lecture (during SLAV 1300 Sociolinguistics) titled Corpus Data and Socio-Linguistic Factors: Rival Forms in Russian. Tore’s research interests are in Slavics linguistics, especially Russian morphology and phonology, cognitive linguistics, and Optimality Theory. Together with next week’s LLL speaker Laura Janda, he is the leader of the CLEAR (cognitive linguistics: empirical approaches to Russian) research group. For more information, his website’s here.