Category Archives: Colloquia

Colloquium (05/02/2018): Sandra Waxman (Northwestern University)

Sandra Waxman is interested in infants’ and young children’s concepts, words, and reasoning across cultures and across language. Her research focuses on the development of language within infants starting from a very young age and acquiring different languages, the development of reasoning and epistemology of the natural world of infants with various cultural backgrounds, and the development of language and the development of reasoning and concepts interact. For more information, her website is here.

Becoming human: How (and how early) do infants link language and cognition?

Language is a signature of our species. To acquire a language, infants must identify which signals are part of their language and discover how these are linked to the objects and events they encounter and to their core representations. For infants as young as 3 months of age, listening to human vocalizations promotes the formation of object categories, a fundamental cognitive capacity. Moreover, this precocious link emerges from a broader template that initially encompasses vocalizations of human and non-human primates but is rapidly tuned specifically to human vocalizations. In this talk, I’ll focus on the powerful contributions of both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ as infants discover increasingly precise links between language and cognition and use them to learn about their world. I’ll also tie in ideas about the place of this language-cognition link in considerations of cognitive and developmental science.

Colloquium (11/15/2017): Florian Schwarz (University of Pennsylvania)

Florian Schwarz is interested in the formal semantics and pragmatics of natural language. Using a variety of experimental methodologies like eye-tracking studies and the visual world paradigm, he investigates how phenomena at the semantic-pragmatic interface such as presuppositions and implicatures are processed online. For more information, his website is here.

The Time-course of Presupposition Projection – Experimental Data and Theoretical Issues

A central question in the study of language is whether a given linguistic phenomenon can be explained in terms of domain-general aspects of cognition, or whether it requires reference to specific linguistic knowledge. Presuppositions, a sub-type of meaning consisting of backgrounded content that is typically taken for granted, offer an interesting case study in this regard: their characteristic ‘projection’ behavior (reflected in surviving embedding under various entailment-canceling operators) exhibits certain asymmetries, whose nature and source remains contested. One view is that they result from superficial aspects of language use unfolding in time; alternatively, they could be directly encoded at the level of linguistic representations. While recent proposals in the theoretical literature on projection directly allude to the role of the time-course associated with comprehending language `from left to right’, relatively little remains known about the real-time cognitive processes involved in comprehending presuppositions and deriving their projected interpretations. I present three experimental studies of projection out of conjunctions, disjunctions, and conditionals, using a variety of methods – from inference tasks to eye tracking during reading and in the visual world paradigm – to explore the role of left-to-right processing in projection. The overall upshot is that while presupposition projection effects arise relatively quickly online, in line with processing-based accounts of projection, they nonetheless incur additional processing costs, as reflected in small reading time delays. I discuss how the current empirical picture relates to the broader theoretical landscape.

Colloquium (2/22/2017): Anne H. Charity Hudley, (The College of William and Mary)

Charity Hudley’s research and publications address the relationship between language variation and Pre K-16 educational practices and policies. Her first two books, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools and We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom are co-authored with Christine Mallinson and published by Teachers College Press. Her third book, Highest Honors: A Guide to Undergraduate Research, co-authored with Cheryl Dickter and Hannah Franz, will also appear in 2017 with Teachers College Press. For more information, her website is here.

The Racialization of African-American English: Insights from Linguistics & Psychology

While language and race are often discussed as separate objects of inquiry, it impossible to discuss one without the other as language and race are inextricably co-constructed. Furthermore, both the humanistic and scientific study of language have served to racialize individuals and communities. Through examples from her work on language and culture in schools in the U.S. South, Charity Hudley presents ways that raciolinguistic ideologies are reproduced and contested in linguistic and psychological research on African-Americans. She provides insights on ways that social psycholinguistic work can empower African-American’s own self-concepts of their language. This talk will present methodologies for addressing persistent issues of internalized racism in students and educators. Charity Hudley also demonstrates how the study of language and race may be approached in ways that create a more seamless continuum between basic and applied research.

Colloquium (9/16/2015): Edward Gibson (MIT)

Edward Gibson’s “TedLab” investigates the relationship between culture and cognition; how people learn, represent and process language; and how all these affects the structure of human languages. For more information, his website is here.

Information theoretic approaches to language universals

Finding explanations for the observed variation in human languages is the primary goal of linguistics, and promises to shed light on the nature of human cognition. One particularly attractive set of explanations is functional in nature, holding that language universals are grounded in the known properties of human information processing. The idea is that grammars of languages have evolved so that language users can communicate using sentences that are relatively easy to produce and comprehend.  In this talk, I summarize results from explorations into several linguistic domains, from an information-processing point of view.

First, we show that all the world’s languages that we can currently analyze minimize syntactic dependency lengths to some degree, as would be expected under information processing considerations.  Next, we consider communication-based origins of lexicons and grammars of human languages.  Chomsky has famously argued that this is a flawed hypothesis, because of the existence of such phenomena as ambiguity.  Contrary to Chomsky, we show that ambiguity out of context is not only not a problem for an information-theoretic approach to language, it is a feature. Furthermore, word lengths are optimized on average according to predictability in context, as would be expected under and information theoretic analysis.  Then we show that language comprehension appears to function as a noisy channel process, in line with communication theory.  Given si, the intended sentence, and sp, the perceived sentence we propose that people maximize P(si | sp), which is equivalent to maximizing the product of the prior P(si) and the likely noise processes P(si → sp).  We discuss how thinking of language as communication in this way can explain aspects of the origin of word order, most notably that most human languages are SOV with case-marking, or SVO without case-marking.