Former Departments and Groups

Over the years, the MPI in Nijmegen has been home to numerous departments and research groups. Below you will find a brief overview of the work and achievements of our former colleagues.



The Language Production Department
The Language Production Department was headed by Willem Levelt from the foundation of the Institute in 1980 until his retirement in 2008. The team developed a comprehensive "blueprint" of the speaking mechanism which turns communicative intentions into articulated utterances. The Department's researchers developed chronometric experimental tools for analysing component processes. They also developed a detailed, computer-modelled and thoroughly tested theory of lexical access, the process by which lexical concepts are mapped onto articulatory gestures.


The Comprehension Department

The Comprehension Department was headed by Anne Cutler from 1993 until 2013. The group focussed on the comprehension of spoken language and how this process is affected by the phonological structure of the native language.

Publications of the Comprehension Department


The Language Acquisition Department

Wolfgang Klein, who directed the Language Acquisition Department from April 1980 onwards, retired in March 2015. The Department primarily investigated processes of language acquisition and use from a broad perspective. It was interested in both first and second languages, and conducted research into the production as well as comprehension of speakers of different ages and cultures, and into the developmental relationship between language and cognition. In particular, the team focussed on morpho-syntax, semantics, and discourse structure.

On 31 October 2011, researchers and staff at the MPI were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Melissa Bowerman, senior scientist emerita at the MPI's Language Acquisition Department. Melissa passed away unexpectedly after a brief illness. Click here to view Melissa's publications, and here to view her curriculum vitae.


The Language & Cognition Department

After an incubation period as the Research Group for Cognitive Anthropology (1991-1994), the Language and Cognition Department (L&C) ran from 1994-2017 under the leadership of Stephen C. Levinson.

The department had three missions:

  • To explore the nature of linguistic diversity and its implications for cognitive science

A flagship project was the Space Project, which showed that linguistic differences correlated with cognitive differences (mental representations in memory and inference). For more information, see Levinson 2003, among others. Similar projects were also launched in other domains: event representation, language of emotions, and most recently language and perception (Majid et al. 2018).

  • To explore the cultural evolution of linguistic diversity

We explored how linguistic representations linked to gesture systems and other cultural properties (Levinson et al. 2018), and were amongst the first to apply phylogenetics to linguistic evolution (Dunn et al. 2005), and modelled the cultural evolution of morphosyntax (Dunn et al. 2011) and word order (Roberts & Levinson 2017).

  • To understand what makes cultural diversification of language possible

Here we focused on the stark contrast between linguistic diversity and pragmatic universals, and argued that the uniform interactional infrastructure for human communication is what makes it possible for infants to bootstrap themselves up into the local language, whatever its character (see Levinson 2006 and Hagoort 2019). We ran a sequence of projects on multimodality, questions (Stivers & Enfield 2010), repair (Dingemanse et al. 2015), turn-taking (Levinson 2016), and sequence organisation (Kendrick et al. 2018).


Although it is easy to exaggerate the achievements of any one department, we believe that we had the following effects:

  • Revitalising linguistic relativity (Gumperz & Levinson 1996, Majid et al. 2004, Levinson & Majid 2014)
  • The Department nudged the cognitive sciences into a greater appreciation of the importance of cultural diversity (Evans & Levinson 2011); We helped to establish that cultural variation, far from being distracting fluff, is the "master trick" involved in human adaptation (Levinson & Jaisson 2006).
  • We developed the use of systematic stimuli for comparative semantic and pragmatic fieldwork. These open source materials have had a global reach, with in excess of 25,000 downloads by over 4,500 users from institutions in over 60 countries around the world since 2010 alone. See:
  • We encouraged teamwork in what were traditionally "lone wolf" departments, and developed the method of regional experts and disciplinary experts (linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists) undertaking large comparative projects together (see Pederson et al. 1998, Levinson & Wilkins 2006, Majid & Levinson 2011, and Levinson et al. 2018).
  • Together with Levelt’s Language Production Department, we spurred the development of work on gesture and multimodality (see e.g. Kita 2003).
  • We played a major role in bringing the findings of conversational analysis to bear on the cross-cultural comparison of interaction (Stivers et al. 2009, Enfield et al. 2013) and language processing (Levinson 2016).
  • We played a belated but important role in fostering the study of language processing in "exotic" languages, by adapting standard laboratory setups like the Visual World paradigm for use in the field (Sauppe 2017, Norcliffe et al. 2015).
  • In collaboration with our head of technical services, Peter Wittenburg, we played a major role in the formation and standards of the language documentation movement and in the development of open source annotation tools, such as ELAN (Seifart et al. 2018).


The Language & Cognition Department has over 100 alumni, many of whom now hold influential positions in linguistics, anthropology and psychology, who we hope will guarantee the continuity of at least parts of our mission.



Research Groups

Multimodal Language and Cognition

This affiliated research group was lead by Asli Ozyurek. The group’s mission was to understand the complex architecture of our human language faculty by looking beyond the spoken or written modalities through which language can be expressed -  by also taking into account the visible bodily aspects of language and communication and how they are used in embodied and situated contexts. Asli Ozyurek is now the director of the Multimodal Language Department.

Evolutionary Processes in Language and Culture

This independent research group, led by Michael Dunn, investigated language diversity and change as part of an integrated cultural evolutionary system.

Communication before Language

This former MPI group, led by Ulf Liszkowski, conducted research into the social and cognitive foundations of human communication in infancy.

Comparative Cognitive Anthropology

The Comparative Cognitive Anthropology research group, led by Daniel Haun, was a collaboration between the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology. It aimed to explore how patterns of human cultural variation are related to variable cognitive function, and to determine the underlying set of psychological mechanisms that allow and stabilise humans' exceptional cross-cultural variability.

Syntax, Typology, and Information Structure

As the name of this former group (led by Robert Van Valin) suggests, reseach here primarily focussed on syntax, typology, and information structures. The interaction of pragmatics and grammar happens on several levels and can potentially affect grammar in various ways, from determining word order and/or prosody, to shaping the entire morphological system. Since these interactions of information structure and morphosyntactic form differ from language to language, an important question arises: what are the co-occurrence patterns of these interactions? It was this question that was at the heart of research conducted within this group.


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