The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics was opened in 1980. Its history dates back further to 1975, when the Max Planck Society asked Willem Levelt, a prominent figure in psychophysics and psycholinguistics, to set up a try-out project group in Germany focusing on language and psychology. The intention was that - if all went well - this project group would evolve into a permanent institute.

Over the years, the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen has experienced a number of milestones. To find out more about our history and our path to success, read out timeline below.


June 1975
The joint proposal submitted by the Biological-Medical and the Humanities Sections of the Max Planck Society was approved to come up with a plan for a time-limited project group for language research, provided a suitable project leader could be found.

June 1976
Following this joint proposal, in June 1976 the Senate decided to establish a project group for psycholinguistics for a period of five years. The Dutch psychologist Willem Levelt was asked to organise and set up the group and, at his request, Nijmegen was selected as the location.  

April 1977
Plans progressed quickly, and in April 1977 the first twenty staff members (half of whom were scientists) were able to start their work in the Canisius building, a former Jesuit seminary.

The project group was supported by a very active Advisory Board under the leadership of Jerome Bruner.

March 1979
As early as 1979, the Senate of the Max Planck Society took the decision to transform the project group into a fully-fledged Institute for Psycholinguistics and to appoint Willem Levelt as a scientific member of the Max Planck Society and director of the Institute.

January 1980
The Institute was formally established in Nijmegen.

March 1980
The Institute was officially opened on 18 March by Professor Reimar Lüst, President of the Max Planck Society.
The Institute had three permanent research groups (rather than independent departments): Language Production, Language Comprehension, and Language Acquisition. Willem Levelt was appointed to direct the Institute's Language Production research group, and Wolfgang Klein to direct the Acquisition research group.

July 1980
Wolfgang Klein was appointed as scientific member of the Max Planck Society and named co-director of the Institute.

1983 Nijmegen Lectures

In cooperation with the Interfaculty Unit for Language and Speech of the Catholic University of Nijmegen (now Radboud University Nijmegen), two seminars were organised as part of the new "Nijmegen Lectures" event:

  • In May, Barbara Hall Partee of the University of Massachusetts gave a week-long series on formal semantics.
  • In September, Albert M. Galaburda of Harvard Medical School gave a week-long series on the anatomy of brain structures that are required to support human linguistic capacity.


July 1984
The fifth year of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics saw the completion of its troika structure. The British psychologist William Marslen-Wilson was appointed as the Institute's third co-director, and took the helm of the Language Comprehension research group. His appointment represented a major expansion of the Institute's speech laboratory, both in terms of personnel and equipment.

April 1986
The new Institute building was officially opened in Nijmegen, on Wundtlaan.

It was opened by the President of the Max Planck Society, Heinz Staab. The official opening addresses were followed by an open house; researchers and technicians presented examples of their work and demonstrated some of the facilities.

“The Institute has now reached the shape which we hope it will essentially keep over the coming years. The end of its youth and the transition to a more sedate period was marked in April 1986 by the official opening of the new Institute building, to which we had already moved by the end of the preceding year and in which after the usual initial disturbance, everything and everybody is working again.” Wolfgang Klein, Managing Director.

The main hall of the new building also harbors a "Scientists Gallery", displaying in bronze some of the pioneers of psycholinguistics including a plaque with quotes from their writings.

July 1987
William Marslen-Wilson returned to the University of Cambridge but stayed closely involved with the Institute through a series of research projects.

December 1993
1993 was a year of renewal for the Institute. Anne Cutler accepted the appointment as scientific member of the Max Planck Society, assuming special responsibility for research into speech and language comprehension. She was also appointed director of the Institute.

July 1994
Stephen C. Levinson was appointed scientific director of the Institute.

In this year, the Institute was able to consolidate its new structure. It now had four permanent research themes: language comprehension, language production, language acquisition and the relationship between language and thought. Stephen C. Levinson was appointed head of the latter. This development further enhanced the Institute's cross-linguistic perspective in the study of language and mind.

September 1997
The Institute’s building was reopened by Dr Bludau, Secretary General of the Max Planck Society, following substantial reconstruction work.

In early 1997, a group of PhD students decided to launch a series in which they could publish their theses; the "MPI Series in Psycholinguistics". This is now the Institute's standard platform for publishing PhD theses, which aims to make both the quality and diversity of research conducted at the Institute more visible to the outside world.

January 1998
The Cognitive Anthropology research group led by Stephen C. Levinson came to an end. Similar work, however, continued as part of a new Language and Cognition Department, established in January 1998. Its programme of field research institutionalised the long-standing interest of the Institute in how human language capacity copes with the huge variety of natural languages.

June 1999
The F.C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging was established. This Centre is a joint venture of the Max Planck Institute and the Universities of Nijmegen (Radboud University), Utrecht, Maastricht and Brabant. Its founding director is Peter Hagoort, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University.

November 2005
The Institute marked its 25th anniversary with a lecture by Reimar Lust, former President of the Max Planck Society.

May 2006
2006 saw major changes at the Institute. Our founding director, Willem Levelt, retired as head of the group devoted to the study of language production.

Towards the end of the year, Willem Levelt was replaced by Peter Hagoort as head of the Language Production research group. Peter Hagoort also continued to head the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging at Radboud University Nijmegen, assisted by David Norris.

End of 2009
A new group, directed by Antje Meyer, was established at the end of 2009. The new department focuses on individual differences in language processing.

September 2009
Launched in September 2009, the International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Language Sciences is a joint initiative of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and two partner institutes based at Radboud University Nijmegen - the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour and the Centre for Language Studies. The IMPRS offers a wide range of courses, training programmes, and networking opportunities to doctoral students of the participating organisations.

Autumn 2010
The second department, Language and Genetics, was founded in Autumn 2010. This department is devoted to the study of genetic infrastructure that provides the brain with the capacity to support our language and communication skills. It is headed by Simon Fisher, who previously worked at the University of Oxford.

This year the MPI celebrated its 30th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Willem Levelt presented a preview of his book on the history of psycholinguistics, demonstrating that the history of our field goes back further than is often assumed.

Anne Cutler, head of the Comprehension Department, retired as director of the Institute and took up a research chair at the University of Western Sydney.

Researchers and staff at the MPI were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Melissa Bowerman, senior scientist emerita of the MPI's Language Acquisition Department. Melissa passed away unexpectedly on 31 October 2011 after a brief illness.

June 2015
The new wing of the MPI building was opened by Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands. To celebrate the occasion, she planted the "Tree of Language". This brand-new wing is home to an extended auditorium, extra office space, new server rooms, a virtual reality suite, experiment rooms (including baby labs and EEG facilities) and, for the first time at our Institute, in-house molecular biology laboratories.

Following on from this official opening event, an open house for the general public attracted more than 600 visitors.

September 2016
A new Language Development Department was established, led by Caroline Rowland. Caroline's arrival is a significant boost for the Institute’s research into one of the central questions in our field: how do infants acquire the intricate and highly complex system of natural language?

December 2017
Director Stephen C. Levinson retired.


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