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In Memoriam Annette Karmiloff-Smith

We received the tragic news that Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith passed away on December 19. Annette importantly contributed to our Max Planck Institute during its critical starting phase.
In Memoriam Annette Karmiloff-Smith

We first met at the Stirling International Psycholinguistics Conference in 1976, where Annette presented a brilliant paper on her just finished dissertation research in Geneva. Soon after, she accepted a position as Research Associate at our Institute (1978-1982). In that role, she has been of crucial importance in building up our developmental research. Also, during that contractual period she published her first major book, A functional approach to child language.

Different from her teacher Piaget, she treated language as a problem space per se for the child and took the new modular, nativist approach to language development seriously. However, Annette's thinking was always in flux. She was a theoretician in the first place. Every experiment, every study had a clear, explicit theoretical motivation. Still, she knew that the only way to prove her case was with elaborate, convincing data. And indeed she was a gifted and creative experimenter. Her methodology was often creatively non-standard, as were her theoretical questions.

Since her 1982 appointment at MRC, she got increasingly worried about the notion of modularity, which led her to come up with an entirely new synthesis in her important book Beyond modularity. But, as if that wasn't satisfactory either, she took a further major step, this time towards connectionism (in Rethinking innateness). This surprised many of her colleagues, including some of us. But in retrospect, one can only say that it became one of the most influential works in modern cognitive, developmental science. Although maybe, the ultimate value of a theory is its veracity, its real impact on the field is rather its productivity, i.e., its power to inspire new, non-trivial research. From that perspective, this challenging book has turned out to be of great importance, having had a major impact on the field. And then, she moved on to her brand new and important work in the domain of "cognitive genetics".

With Annette Karmiloff-Smith we lost a courageous thinker, a brilliant developmental scientist and, sadly, a dear and most helpful friend.


Pim Levelt and Wolfgang Klein


More information

The following page has been set up for people to share their recollections of Annette:

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


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