Nijmegen Lectures 2009

7 December 2009 10:30 - 9 December 2009 17:00
Nijmegen Lectures
Understanding Language across Multiple Time-Scales:
Evolution, Acquisition and Processing
This year’s lectures will be given by Morten H. Christiansen
Cornell University and Santa Fe Institute, Morten Christiansen's website

Lecture 1: Language as Shaped by the Brain

The study of human language has frequently treated questions concerning the evolution, acquisition and processing of language as being independent of each other. However, this tendency is misguided: there are important constraints between each of these areas that allow them to shed light on one another. I start the first lecture by outlining an integrated framework within which to understand language across multiple time-scales. Focusing then on the issue of language evolution, I argue that traditional notions of universal grammar as a biological endowment of abstract linguistic constraints can be ruled out on evolutionary grounds. Instead, the fit between the mechanisms employed for language and the way in which language is acquired and used can be explained by processes of cultural evolution shaped by the human brain. On this account, language evolved by 'piggy-backing' on pre-existing neural mechanisms, constrained by socio-pragmatic considerations, the nature of our thought processes, perceptuo-motor factors, and cognitive limitations on learning, memory and processing. Using behavioral, computational and molecular genetics methods, I then explore how one of these constraints—the ability to learn and process sequentially presented information—may have played an important role in shaping language through cultural evolution. I conclude that most of the constraints that have shaped language evolution still affect our current use language, suggesting that language universals may be best viewed as probabilistic tendencies resulting from multiple-constraint satisfaction.



Nick Enfield, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen (The Netherlands)

Sharon Peperkamp, Université Paris 8, Saint-Dénis (France)

Andy Smith, The University of Edinburgh (U.K.)


Lecture 2: Language Acquisition as Multiple-Cue Integration

The idea of language as shaped by the brain suggests that much of the neural hardware involved in language may not be specific to it. This means that language has to be acquired largely by mechanisms that are not uniquely dedicated for this purpose. In the second lecture, I propose that language has evolved to rely on a multitude of probabilistic information sources for its acquisition, allowing language to be as expressive as it is while still being learnable by domain-general learning mechanisms. I focus on the probabilistic contributions of phonological and distributional information to the learning of basic aspects of syntax. Based on results from corpus analyses, computational modeling and human experimentation, I argue that a probabilistic relationship exists between what a word sounds like and how it is used: nouns tend to sound like other nouns and verbs like other verbs. Importantly, these sources of phonological information, or “cues”, not only play an important role in language acquisition but also affect syntactic processing in adulthood. I conclude that the integration of phonological cues with other types of information is integral to the computational architecture of our language capacity. This integration, in turn, is what makes language learnable without universal grammar given the rich sources of information available in the input.


Elena Lieven, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig (Germany)

Fermin Moscoso del Prado, Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille 1 (France)

Pienie Zwitserlood, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Münster (Germany)


Lecture 3: Language Processing as a Usage-Based Skill

The multiple-cue integration perspective on language acquisition highlights the rich nature of the input. In combination with the emphasis on cultural evolution of language, this points to a usage-based account of language processing in which linguistic experience plays a crucial role in determining language ability. In the final lecture, I therefore discuss the importance of experience for understanding language processing, focusing on the processing of relative clauses as an example. Evidence is presented from corpus analyses and on-line sentence processing experiments, showing that variations in the distribution of different relative clause types are directly reflected in the ease with which adults process such constructions. I propose that differences in relative clause processing may further emerge due to variations across individuals in their experience with language. Predictions from this account are supported by studies manipulating language exposure in both connectionist networks and human subjects. Additional experimental data suggest that individual differences in basic abilities for sequential learning and processing, in turn, may affect individuals’ ability to learn from experience. I conclude that the processing of relative clauses and of sentences, more generally, may be best construed as a usage-based skill, relying on the integration of multiple constraints.



Fernanda Ferreira, The University of Edinburgh (U.K.)

Simon Garrod, University of Glasgow, (U.K.)

Karl-Magnus Petersson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen (The Netherlands)


Dan Dediu
Sabine Hunnius
Dorothé Salomo


Radboud University Nijmegen, Aula, Comeniuslaan 2, Nijmegen
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Wundtlaan 1, Nijmegen

Nijmegen Lectures 2009



Nanjo.Bogdanowicz [at]

Share this page