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Relations in Relativity: New Perspectives on Language and Thought -

Program & Abstracts

To all workshop participants: Please, take a minute to register at the registration desk which will be located on the ground floor of the AULA, we will distribute program booklets at the desk.





May 9th

9.00   -  9.45    Stephen C. Levinson: Introduction to linguistic relativity (AULA)

9.45 - 12.30     Conversation I: Mechanisms of linguistic relativity (AULA): Dedre Gentner (abstract), Gary Lupyan (abstract), Barbara Malt (abstract)

9.45   - 10.10     Dedre Gentner
10.10 - 10.35     Gary Lupyan
10.35 - 11.00     Barbara Malt
11.00 - 11.15     Coffee Break
11.15 - 11.45     Discussion among the speakers
11.45 - 12.30     Questions from the audience

12.30 - 14.00     Lunch

14.00 - 16.00     Poster session (MPI 1st floor)

May 10th

9.00 - 12.00       Conversation II: Early or late effects of language on speech sound categorization? (AULA): John Kingston (abstract), Emmanuel Dupoux (abstract)

9.00   -  9.30      Emmanuel Dupoux: Presentation of argument for early effects
9.30   - 10.00     John Kingston: Presentation of argument for late effects
10.00 - 10.30     Coffee Break
10.30 - 12.00     Debate

12.30 - 14.00     Lunch

14.00 - 16.00     Masterclasses for IMPRS students (MPI) (information on the locations of the masterclasses)

May 11th

10.00 - 12.30      Panel discussion on the relevance of linguistic relativity (MPI room 163)
(Panel: Emmanuel Dupoux, Dedre Gentner, John Kingston, Stephen Levinson, Gary Lupyan, and Barbara Malt.
Discussants: Monique Flecken, Asifa Majid, and Roel Willems)

10.00  - 11.00     Discussion
11.00 - 11.30     Coffee Break
11.30 - 12.30     Discussion continued

12.30 - 14.00     Lunch




Dedre Gentner     (personal webpage)


Relational Language and Relational Thought

The acquisition of language invites symbolic representation. Language provides representational resources that are used to encode situations and to reason about them.  Some of the effects of internalizaing language are general, and others depend on the specific semantics of the terms. In particular, I suggest that relational language supports relational representation, and that this is crucial to human cognitive powers. A relational term such as carnivore, consequence or limit is both an invitation to derive a relational meaning and a label that helps preserve the relational pattern once it is grasped. I will suggest four specific ways in which relational language contributes to human cognition.

(1) Common labels invite comparison. When two things have the same name, we are led to compare them (the implicit assumption is that there is something alike about them). The resulting common system may give rise to inferences or form the seed for a new category. Further, the abstraction process often requires some re-representation of the relations to render them applicable to both situations. This more abstract encoding renders the relation more portable to further situations.

(2) Linguistic labels promote reification. Naming a relational constellation confers stability and permits it to enter into new assertions. A named relational structure can serve as an argument to a higher-order proposition, facilitating the expression of complex assertions.

(3)  Naming promotes uniform relational encoding. A pervasive problem in human learning is the inert knowledge problem: People often fail to retrieve past material that is analogous to the current situation. Naming a relational structure makes it more likely to be retained and applied in the future. Over time, the use of such terms promotes more uniform relational encoding, and this in turn potentiates greater relational transfer. On this account, the acquisition of relational vocabulary is a direct contributor to expert reasoning.

(4) Linguistic structure invites conceptual structure. Learning semantic relations within the lexicon can invite finding parallel conceptual relations. Once learned, systems of semantic relations provide representational tools with which to structure knowledge.


Gary Lupyan    (personal webpage)


Whorf for the 21st century: From interactive processing to linguistic relativity

Both proponents and critics of the Whorfian question have assumed a separation between language and (nonverbal) thought (e.g., Wolff & Holmes, 2010, for review). I will argue that, given the massive interactivity in virtually every aspect of human cognition and perception, this position is untenable.  Language and thought are neither isomorphic, nor independent. Rather, linguistic experience changes the way perceptual and conceptual representations are activated. I will support this thesis with three sources of evidence:

First, I will present evidence of linguistic effects on putatively nonverbal processes such as categorization, memory, cognitive control, and basic visual processing: For example, referring to a triangle by its name (“triangle”) can affect visual judgments of its orientation and relative side-length, and simply hearing a verbal label can make an otherwise invisible object, visible. Second, I will show that down-regulating activity in cortical areas classically associated with language processing using TMS and tDCS, affects performance on “nonverbal” perceptual and cognitive tasks in ways similar to impairments observed in aphasia. Third, I will present evidence that representations of both familiar and newly learned concepts are different when activated via verbal versus nonverbal means.

These results require one to accept one of two propositions: Either putatively nonverbal tasks such as simple object detection are actually verbal (a proposition that is either incoherent or indefensible), or language, once learned, modulates ongoing neural activity, including the activity that comprises basic perceptual processes. The second proposition requires rejecting the distinction between verbal and nonverbal representations and viewing the Whorfian question in an interactive processing framework in which experience with language—both long-term and on-line—modulates ongoing processing. On this view, verbal labels do not point or refer to nonlinguistic concepts, but rather actively modulate the conceptual representations that are brought online during a particular (“nonverbal”) task. Insofar as there exists real linguistic diversity (Evans & Levinson, 2009), the experience of learning and using different languages, is predicted to modulate ongoing activity in systematically different ways.


Barbara Malt    (personal webpage)


Given that language can influence non-linguistic representations under some circumstances, the question is how and when. One major category of “how” is that language may orient attention toward some elements of an input over others so that the distribution of attention is different than if language were not involved. Figuring out “when”, then, demands considering the full set of influences on how attention is allocated to stimuli. As Slobin pointed out, preparing to talk about something requires attention to the elements of input obligatorily encoded in the language to be output. On the other hand, much processing of input occurs without the intention to speak, or with intention to speak being only a secondary goal.  Preparing food, planting flowers, building a house, diapering a baby, walking a dog, and so on are much more about doing than about talking or even than about seeing, hearing, etc. per se. Attention must be distributed according to the demands of the task, regardless of language.  This is not true for just concrete objects. It holds true for at least some abstract domains as well. Regardless of what spatial configurations a language groups together by name, the baby must be in one particular spatial relation to the changing table (and the diaper must have a tight fit, not a loose fit); the hammer must be in one particular spatial relation to the nail (and a different one to the fingers), or the consequences will be unfortunate. This position does not preclude the possibility that language learning creates some default patterns of attention to things such that speakers of different languages will sometimes show different patterns of looking or remembering or judging when language is not invoked.  What is precluded, however, is that the habits are strong enough, across a wide range of domains, to consistently dominate outcomes when goals motivate other patterns of attention.  Indeed, my line of argument suggests that even when actively engaging language, other goals may cause language-based effects to diminish or disappear.


Emmanuel Dupoux    (personal webpage)


Investigations into phonological "deafnesses"

As adults, our language processing system is exquisitely attuned phonological and phonetic properties of our native language. Such attunement has been documented in speech perception at several levels: the decoding of speech sounds into phonetic categories, the coding of suprasegmental information, the effect of phonotactic constraints, lexical segmentation strategies and the compensation for phonetically and phonologically induced variations.  I will argue none of these effects are impacting low-level auditory perception, but rather, they are concentrated at an intermediate "prelexical" level, where sound patterns are probabilistically categorized into discrete units before contacting lexical representations. I will argue that while some of the effects of phonological knowledge on speech processing are labile and can be adjusted when confronted with new linguistic experience, a particular subclass of them is extremely robust and persistent, even after extensive experience with a nonnative language. Such effects, dubbed phonological 'deafnesses' may cause significant impediment when learning a second language in adulthood. I will illustrate these cases through perceptual experiments conducted with late learners and bilingual populations on the perception of constrative stress (French versus Spanish) and syllabic structure (French versus Japanese). Finally, I will outline a probabilistic model of prelexical and lexical processing which attempts to summarize some of these effects, and derive the distinction between labile adaptations and persistent phonological 'deafnesses' on principled grounds.

John Kingston    (personal webpage)


Three Arguments for Autonomy

In arguing for autonomy over interaction, I use three bodies of data, each of which examines the listener’s application of a different kind of linguistic knowledge: knowledge of words, knowledge of processes or rules, and finally knowledge of phonotactics. Before sketching these data, I should explain that I have been predisposed to favor autonomous over interactive models of speech perception by results demonstrating that measurably different acoustic properties within individual speech sounds integrate perceptually (Kingston, 1991;
Kingston & Macmillan, 1995; Kingston, Macmillan, Walsh Dickey, Thorburn, & Bartels, 1997; Macmillan, Kingston, Thorburn, Walsh Dickey, & Bartels, 1999). In Kingston & Diehl (1995); Kingston, Diehl, Kirk, & Castleman (2008), we showed that the same acoustic properties integrated in stimuli that were not recognized as speech, which indicated that integration occurs during pre-linguistic processing of the auditory qualities evoked by the signal’s acoustic properties. Other results using such non-speech analogues indicate that another quite general perceptual effect, contrast between successive speech sounds, might also be a product of pre-linguistic auditory processing (Lotto & Kluender, 1998; Diehl, Lotto, & Holt, 2004; Holt, 2005, 2006; Lotto & Holt, 2006), although this interpretation is controversial (Fowler, Brown, & Mann, 2000; Fowler, 2006; Viswanathan, Fowler, & Magnuson, 2009).

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Last checked 2012-05-04 by Ewelina Wnuk

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