Category Archives: News

Sanker publishes in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics

Chelsea Sanker has just published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics

This paper presents a set of auditory perception experiments testing the effects of lexical ambiguity, lemma frequency, and acoustic details. In an AX discrimination task with stimuli produced in isolation, lexically ambiguous phonologically matching forms (e.g., sun-sun, sun-son) were evaluated more slowly and identified as ‘different’ more often than lexically unambiguous forms (e.g., cat-cat). For stimuli extracted from meaningful sentences, pairs of homophone mates (sun-son) were evaluated more slowly than same pairs of such words (sun-sun), following from the greater acoustic distance between homophone mates in several measures. The individual lexical frequency of homophone mates was a significant factor in both identification tasks, though frequency effects in the AX tasks were weaker and driven by the lexically unambiguous items. In both studies, greater acoustic distance between items was a predictor of longer response times, though the significance of particular acoustic measures varied. Identification of homophone mates also depended on context of production; listeners were above chance accuracy for choosing between homophone mates extracted from sentences, but not for homophone mates produced in isolation. While results for stimuli produced in sentential contexts indicate that listeners are sensitive to acoustic details and can weakly associate production patterns with lexical items, the absence of such differences for homophone mates produced in isolation suggests that these details are not an inherent part of the representation.

Welcome Roman Feiman!!!!!!

The Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences (CLPS) is delighted to welcome our new psycholinguist Roman Feiman who joins us as of September, 2018 as an Assistant Professor.  Roman received his PhD in Psychology from Harvard University in 2015. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard for a year, and at UC San Diego for another two. His work draws on a variety of approaches and methods from cognitive developmental psychology, language acquisition, psycholinguistics, and formal semantics. Now at Brown, he directs the brand new Brown Language and Thought lab. You can find the lab here:

Over the next few years Roman will be teaching – among other things – courses on language processing (CLPS 1800), on child language acquisition of syntax, semantics and pragmatics (CLPS 1660), a seminar on Logic in Language and Thought, and co-teaching with Ellie Pavlich a course on Machine and Human Learning. Stay tuned for other courses.  Welcome Roman!

NSF Grant to Cohen Priva

Uriel Cohen Priva has been awarded a grant from NSF. Read about it here.

Human language use reflects the nature of human communication. For instance, frequent words tend to have fewer sounds than infrequent ones, which facilitates quick production and understanding. However, little is known about more fine-grained distinctions. For instance, English has more /k/ than /p/ sounds. Does that reflect a property of human language and its physiological and perceptual nature or a historical accident? Answering such questions requires comparative data on the frequency and phonological makeup of words in many languages. This project will build on existing textual sources and word frequency lists to provide the phonological makeup of words in close to 200 low-resource languages. The phonological word lists will provide an invaluable resource to the understanding of human language and provide much-needed linguistic resources to low-resource languages. The outputs of the project will be made public and easily accessible, thereby assisting in documenting and teaching the processed languages, and in building computational linguistic resources such as text-to-speech engines.

The research team, including trained undergraduate and graduate students, will create rules to translate alphabets to phonemic representation for multiple languages. The team will then collect textual resources and word frequency lists from publicly available sources such as online Bibles, newspapers, and movie subtitles. The rules will be applied separately to each source and the resulting phonological representations will be made publicly available, such that not only researchers but also the general public will be able to use and interact with the data. The researchers will proceed to use the data to investigate whether the information theoretic properties of sounds have distributional universality: do sounds tend to provide similar amounts of information cross-linguistically, and if so, does their information content correlate with their phonetic properties? Universality is an age-old question, and the similarities and differences of properties across language can provide new insights into language use. Specifically, the researchers will use information theoretic properties to predict whether low information or other previously studied phonological properties are likely to promote consonant weakening in those languages.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.


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 new paper out 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 (2/27/2018): 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.

Southern New England Workshop in Semantics (12/2/2017)

Saturday, December 2, 2017
MIT Stata Center, 32 Vassar Street, Cambridge, MA

This year, the Southern New England Workshop in Semantics (SNEWS) will be held in MIT. As always, the workshop aims to be a friendly venue for graduate students in Linguistics to present their work in semantics and receive feedback, so ongoing research and stuff that you’re still figuring out are most welcome! The talks should be 20 min + 10 min for questions.

Those interested in presenting should contact the Brown liaison Junwen Lee by October 27th (Friday). The deadline for submitting presentation titles is November 17th.

Besides graduate students, post-docs, visitors at the participating schools, and faculty are also encouraged to attend and sit in for the presentations!

Short description of SNEWS:

The Southern New England Workshop in Semantics (SNEWS) is an annual workshop for graduate students in Linguistics to present their research and receive feedback in an informal setting. Topics of presentation generally fall into any of the following categories (broadly defined): semantics, pragmatics, semantics/pragmatics interface, experimental and psycholinguistic investigations into semantic/pragmatic phenomena, etc. The workshop is meant to encourage the development and exchange of ideas through friendly interaction between students and faculty from different universities in the area. Universities that have participated in the past include Yale, UConn, UMass, MIT, Harvard, and Brown.

For more details about the event, please contact Junwen Lee, or refer to the event website here.