Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

What happens in the brain when we hear a sentence or form one? Why is it that children and adults can all learn languages, but children are usually far more successful at it – or is that a false impression? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Dutch city of Nijmegen are getting to the bottom of questions like these in the course of their work. They are also interested in how language and thinking affect one another, what role the cultural environment plays in this. The five areas of Language Development, Neurobiology of Language, Psychology of Language, Language and cognition, and Language and Genetics define the Institute’s scientific framework. These areas are heavily interconnected through close collaboration between departments and research groups, in line with the interdisciplinary nature of this research field.


Wundtlaan 1
6525 XD Nijmegen, Niederlande
Phone: +31 24 3521-911
Fax: +31 24 3521-213

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):

IMPRS for Language Sciences

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

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<p>Culture shapes the brain</p>

From a research perspective, reading and writing is a fascinating phenomenon. After all, the first writing systems date back less than 6,000 years – the blink of an eye in the timescale of human evolution. How the human brain is nonetheless able to master this complex task is a key question.

Seeing sounds

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<p>Gestures provide instant answers</p>

Hand movements and facial expressions are a crucial component of communication


For us, it appears natural that children should start to speak at some point. Yet learning language is a major feat, which is still not fully understood even today. The Departments led by Caroline Rowland at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and Angela Friederici at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig are using a wide range of methods to investigate how children learn this complex system of communication with seemingly no effort.

Scientists from 100 countries work at the Max Planck Institutes. Here they write about their personal experiences and impressions. Julia Misersky, doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, recently started her maternity leave. Here she introduces her research topic, explains how she plans to juggle her doctoral studies with motherhood, and talks about her commitment to improving conditions for young parents.

Our bodies, our behavior and even our brains are anything but symmetrical. And this seems to be an important factor in the seamless functioning of our thought, speech and motor faculties. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen are currently searching for genetic clues to this phenomenon. They want to decode the fundamental molecular biological mechanisms that contribute to asymmetry in the brain, and to identify possible causes for neurological disorders.

During everyday conversations, we often begin to speak before we have decided exactly what we want to say. Antje Meyer and her team at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen are investigating how we plan sentences and what obstacles may stand in the way. To this end, the researchers test volunteers on a treadmill, construct virtual environments and travel to India to study whether illiterate individuals process language differently.

Around 7,000 languages are currently spoken worldwide. Quite a number of them are at severe risk of dying out though, as they are spoken by only a small number of people and are no longer being passed on to future generations. Scientists therefore anticipate that a third, at most – but perhaps only one-tenth – of the languages spoken today will still exist by the end of the 21st century. The significance people attach to their own language depends heavily on social and economic circumstances. Particularly under threat are the languages of population groups with a low social reputation. Even worse is the fact that, with each language that disappears, cultural and intellectual identity is also being lost. In order to at least document languages and dialects under threat and preserve them for posterity – and for future researchers – the DOBES Program was launched in 2000. As part of this project, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics are conducting research in many parts of the world. In northern Namibia, for example, they are focusing on the Khoisan language ǂAkhoe Haiǀǀom, which contains many click sounds. In standard orthography, these are represented by the symbols !, ǀ, ǀǀ and ǂ. In preparation for a workshop on minority languages in southern Africa, one of the project’s local staff members, teacher Mariane Kheimses, interviewed Abakup ǀǀGamǀǀgaeb about his thoughts regarding his mother tongue. The members of the community couldn’t imagine allowing just a single representative to speak for everyone at the workshop. Instead, a series of video interviews was shown at the event, enabling all possible opinions to be represented.

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Brain waves synchronize to the speed of talking, influencing the way we hear words

2019 Bosker, Hans Rutger

Cognitive Science Linguistics

Even though we typically have little trouble having a spoken conversation with someone else, speech in everyday communication is a noisy and highly variable signal. The same word can be pronounced in very different ways. It is therefore quite remarkable that listeners have little trouble understanding speech with all its variation. The present study has revealed a neurobiological mechanism that helps listeners understand speech produced at different speech rates, involving brainwaves synchronizing to the rhythm of speech, in turn influencing how we perceive the words in the speech signal.


How does the brain build a language?

2018 Rowland, Caroline F.

Cognitive Science Linguistics

How does the human brain acquire a language? And why do some of us learn language earlier and faster than others?  In our research, we work to answer these questions by studying how children build a language system from the speech they hear in childhood. Our aim is to understand what drives language acquisition by discovering what differences exist in the brain’s learning mechanisms, how these differences arise, and why they affect the trajectory of learning so substantially.


Chatty bats and the biology of language

2017 Vernes, Sonja C.

Cognitive Science Linguistics

How the capacity for human language evolved and is encoded in our biology is one of the great unanswered questions. Studying language relevant abilities in animals, such as the ability to learn new vocalisations, will make it possible to decipher the basis of these traits. By studying the genetics, neurobiology and behaviour of bats we will advance our knowledge about the origins of mammalian vocal communication and may ultimately gain insight into the biological encoding and evolution of human speech and langauge.


Complex psychiatric disorders are thought to lie at the extreme end of an underlying continuum of behavioural traits. The opposite end of this continuum is embodied by milder symptoms that can occur in many of us. By studying social communication difficulties in the general population during the course of childhood and adolescence, scientists at the MPI for Psycholinguistics discovered recently a genetic overlap with factors affecting risk for autism and schizophrenia that is disorder-specific and developmentally sensitive.


Turn-taking in human communication and its implications for language processing

2016 Levinson, Stephen C.

Cognitive Science Linguistics

Most language usage is interactive, involving rapid turn-taking. The turn-taking system has a number of striking properties: turns are short and responses are remarkably rapid, yet turns are of varying length and often of very complex construction, so that the underlying cognitive processing is highly compressed. Although neglected in cognitive science, the system has deep implications for language processing and acquisition, just now becoming clear.

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