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Two MPI researchers receive Vici Grants
December 20, 2011
Humans have a weak sense of smell. While people can easily abstract the common shared color of red, for instance, in the case of strawberries, tomatoes, apples and blood, they cannot similarly abstract a common odor by paying attention to what they have in common and ignoring their differences. It seems that olfaction is being used for some other purpose which interferes with our ability to express it in language.
"When people are tested with familiar, everyday smells they find it difficult to name them", says Asifa Majid, senior researcher at MPI's Language and Cognition department. There are other clues that we have problems concerning smells, she explains. "In the unfortunate circumstance of brain damage, for example should a person have a stroke, identifying smells is particularly hard, even when it can be shown that the ability to smell is still present. Moreover, it has been claimed that languages around the world have only limited vocabulary for smells."
Breaking new ground
Our current understanding of human olfaction is strongly limited by the reliance on a homogenous group of Western people. "It appears that there are language communities, in Asia, Africa and South America, with many words to talk about abstract smell qualities," states Majid. These words are said to apply to a broad spectrum of smells and therefore require abstraction. Although there is promising evidence in this direction, there is no definitive study as yet. "This project will break new ground in the study of olfactory language and cognition by studying people from a variety of communities in different environmental niches."
It will take a further innovative step by including expert smellers, in order to test intra-cultural variation within a single linguistic community. The outcomes of the project will establish whether humans can have abstract olfactory language and examine the repercussions this has for olfactory cognition.
Mirjam Ernestus, researcher at the MPI for Psycholinguistics and the Center for Language Studies of the Radboud University Nijmegen, will investigate how people learn reduced pronunciation variants in a foreign language. In everyday conversations, people do not always pronounce words in full. The Dutch word 'natuurlijk' can sound like 'tuuk', the English 'support' like 'sport', and the French 'peloton' like 'ploton'. Speech reduction is a common phenomenon in everyday conversations: in French and English, about 50% of words miss at least one sound and 16% miss even a whole syllable.
"Native speakers have these variants stored in their mental lexicon (the dictionary in the brain)," Ernestus says. "People learning a foreign language have to store these variants in their mental lexicons as well, but this may be difficult for them, since they may not be able to perceive these variants very well. In this project we will investigate how foreign language learners store these variants, and how their mental representations change when their knowledge of the variants, and their knowledge of the foreign language in general, increases."This project will produce the first, fully specified, theory of how late learners of a language build mental representations for pronunciation variants in that language. In addition, it will provide information about how native learners learn and store these variants.
ERC Starting Grant
In September, Ernestus also received a Starting Grant of 1.5 million euro from the European Research Council. In that project, starting January 2012, she will investigate how advanced learners of a language, who have mental representations for reduced pronunciation variants, understand complete sentences containing these variants. Since both projects focus on reduced pronunciation variants, they will reinforce each other.
See also an interview with Mirjam Ernestus about her research.