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.

<p>Culture shapes the brain</p>

Culture shapes the brain

April 20, 2018
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. more
Seeing sounds
Researchers gain new insights into why people connect sensory experiences more
<p>Gestures provide instant answers</p>
Hand movements and facial expressions are a crucial component of communication more
The amazing flexibility of the human mind
Even learning to read in your thirties profoundly transforms brain networks more
Defects in non-coding DNA could cause brain disorders
Researchers identifiy 26 variants in the 3’UTRome in patients with neurodevelopmental disorders more
Early left-right differences in the spinal cord may trigger the eventual dominance of the left hemisphere for language functions in most adults more
Genetic links depend on stages in a child's development more
The courtship song of male mice is disrupted by a genetic mutation known to affect human speech more
Does clickbait apply to academia?
Journal articles with positive framing and phrasing arousal in their titles received higher Altmetric scores according to a recent study by researcher Gwilym Lockwood from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen. more
Asymmetrical matter

Asymmetrical matter

July 11, 2016
Our bodies, our behaviour, but also our brains are anything other than symmetrical. And that seems to be an important factor in the seamless functioning of our thought, speech and motor faculties. more
Watching the brain learn a foreign language
Scientists observe how the human brain memorizes a new grammar more
The mystery of the many misplaced verbs in German weil clauses more
Using Virtual Reality to make experiments more realistic
Virtual reality enables detailed experiments more
The central use of language is in conversation, where we take short turns in rapid alternation, a pattern found across unrelated cultures and languages. In the December issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics reviews new research on turn-taking, focusing on its implications for how languages are structured and for how language and communication evolved. more
Busy brain region

Busy brain region

November 09, 2015
'Broca's area' processes both language and music at the same time more
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.
Experts from various disciplines discuss whether what is widely perceived as beautiful can be expressed in universally applicable formulas.
A psycholinguist has been visiting the Trobriand Islands for 25 years and has experienced dramatic changes in the inhabitants’ language and culture.

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

2017 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.


I see what you don’t say! How language colours our perception

2016 Flecken, Monique; Francken, Jolien
Cognitive Science Linguistics
The hypothesis that our native language influences our perception of the world has fascinated scientists for decades. Using neuroscientific methods, researchers at the MPI for psycholinguistics are investigating to what extent and under what conditions this hypothesis can be confirmed, by means of within- and across-language comparisons. It could be shown that the language system is automatically involved in the perception of both simple as well as more complex scenes (depicting objects or motion events). These effects occur very rapidly and thus operate almost unconsciously. more

Genetics of left-right differences in the brain

2015 Francks, Clyde
Cognitive Science Linguistics
The left and right sides of the human brain are specialized for different cognitive functions. For example, language is lateralized towards the left hemisphere in most people. The genetic mechanisms that underlie brain lateralization are unknown. In addition, dyslexia, language impairment, schizophrenia and autism are sometimes linked to altered brain lateralization. Understanding the genetic basis of lateralization is an important question in human neuroscience, with relevance for learning disabilities and psychiatric conditions. more

How the social network affects language processing

2015 Lev-Ari, Shiri; Meyer, Antje Susanne
Cognitive Science Linguistics
People differ in the size of their social circle. As we learn language from our environment, one would expect the size of the social network to affect the way we process language. This is indeed the case. A project at the MPI for Psycholinguistics investigates which aspects of language processing in adults can be related to the size of the social network, and which psychological processes are responsible for these relationships. The project thus shows that our life-style can influence our communicative abilities. more

Computational models of language acquisition and production

2014 Fitz, Hartmut
Cognitive Science Linguistics

Relative clauses are a syntactic device to create complex sentences and they make language structurally productive. Despite a considerable number of experimental studies, it is still largely unclear how children learn relative clauses and how these are processed in the language system. Researchers at the MPI for Psycholinguistics used a computational learning model to gain novel insights into these issues. The model explains the differential development of relative clauses in English as well as cross-linguistic differences.


Covering the linguistic diversity of the world: The Language Archive

2014 Klein, Wolfgang
Cognitive Science Linguistics
Only a few of the world's 7000 languages are well-described, because all linguistic systems are extremely complex and until recently, language documentation was based exclusively on paper and pencil. Audio- and video recordings as well as digital techniques now allow the construction of large language archives. One of the largest is The Language Archive (TLA), originally built up at the MPI for Psycholinguistics and since 2011 co-financed by the Nederlandse Akademie der Wetenschappen, the Max Planck Society and Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. more

How to paint with language

2013 Dingemanse, Mark
Cognitive Science Linguistics
Words evolve not as blobs of ink on paper but in face to face interaction. The nature of language as fundamentally interactive and multimodal is shown by the study of ideophones, vivid sensory words that thrive in conversations around the world. The ways in which these Lautbilder enable precise communication about sensory knowledge has for the first time been studied in detail. It turns out that we can paint with language, and that the onomatopoeia we sometimes classify as childish might be a subset of a much richer toolkit for depiction in speech, available to us all. more

Think before you speak? The temporal coordination of thinking and speaking

2013 Konopka, Agnieszka; van de Velde, Maartje; Meyer, Antje
Cognitive Science Linguistics
In everyday conversations, we often begin to speak before we fully determined what we are going to say and how we are going to say it. But how are speaking and thinking coordinated in time? How far do speakers think ahead? Scientists at the MPI for Psycholinguistics illustrate how analyses of the speakers' eye movements can be used to assess this question. Their studies show how the time course of sentence preparation is shaped by the content and form of the utterance that speakers produce. These findings suggest new perspectives on the relationship between thought and language. more

Genetic contributions to speech and language

2012 Vernes, Sonja Catherine
Mutations in the FOXP2 gene cause severe speech and language disorder. FOXP2 encodes a protein that regulates the switching on and off of other genes. It is not yet clear why mutations of FOXP2 mainly impact on language, and the neural mechanisms that it directs remain largely unknown. Scientists at the MPI for Psycholinguistics performed large-scale screens of genetic pathways downstream of this regulatory protein in developing brain, and uncovered a role in modulating connectivity of neurons. These data suggest that FOXP2 may help in wiring up neural circuits important for language. more

Semantic but not perceptual memory determines how we interpret the world

2012 Mitterer, Holger
Cognitive Science Linguistics
It has long been recognized that world knowledge influences how we view the world around us. It was not clear, however, whether this influence was exerted by the exact perceptual memory of how things looked or rather by abstract, factual knowledge about objects in the world. While these two sources of knowledge are usually highly correlated, traffic lights constitute an exception by being physically similar in European countries but named differently. Using this test bed, it was possible to show that language-specific labels guide how we see the things around us. more
According to many theories prediction of upcoming events is a fundamental principle of human cognition. New results of the MPI for Psycholinguistics and the University of Allahabad (India) however suggest that literacy (the ability to read and write) is an important prerequisite for the anticipation of words during language processing. Literates (but not illiterates) were found to use syntactic and associative information accessed during the processing spoken sentences to predict which object a speaker would refer to next. more

Are you joking or what?­ – The Trobriand Islanders' ways of speaking

2011 Senft, Gunter
Cognitive Science Linguistics
The Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea differentiate and label in their language Kilivila genres and varieties or registers which are constituted by these genres. The documentation and analysis of these varieties and genres reveals how important it is to understand these metalinguistic differentiations. The cultural and verbal competence which is necessary to adequately interact with the Trobriander Islanders is based on the understanding of the indigenous text typology and the Trobriand Islanders' culture specific ways of speaking. more

When do children acquire intonation as a focus-marker?

2010 Chen, Aoju
Cognitive Science Linguistics
This study investigated how children acquire intonation as a focus-marker in Dutch. The use of intonation in different information structural contexts was analysed for children from four age groups (1- to 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4- to 5-year-olds, and 7- to 8-year-olds) in both spontaneous and elicited production. Results show that children go through distinct development stages before becoming adult-like in the use of intonation in focus marking at the age of 7 or 8. more

How the body shapes language and imagination in the brain

2010 Casasanto, Daniel
Cognitive Science
If the content of our minds depends in part on the structure of our bodies, then people with different body types should think differently. To test this proposal, scientists at the MPI for Psycholinguistics used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine the neural correlates of language comprehension and motor imagery cued by verbs that name actions people tend to perform with their dominant hand (write, throw). Action verb understanding and action imagery were differently lateralized in right- and left-handers’ brains, consistent with the way they perform the actions with their particular bodies. more

Are human facial expressions of emotions the same in all cultures?

2009 Senft, Gunter
Cognitive Science Linguistics
This paper presents a project which tests the hypothesis of the universality of facial expressions of emotions crossculturally and crosslinguistically. First results are presented which contradict the hypothesis. more

It's what you say and how you say it

2009 Braun, Bettina
Cognitive Science Linguistics
The speech melody of an utterance indicates, among others, if an utterance was intended as a question or a statement and which information the speaker conveys as new or contrastive to the precontext. Research at the MPI for Psycholinguistics shows that listeners are able to use this information efficiently to predict the further course of the utterance or to infer the contrast that was available for the speaker but not explicitly expressed. This ability might be responsible for the efficiency of speech communication. more

On Broca, Brain and Binding

2008 Hagoort, Peter
In speaking and language understanding, word information is retrieved from memory and combined into larger units (unification). Unification operations take place in parallel at the semantic, syntactic and phonological levels of processing. A new framework is proposed that connects psycholinguistic models to a neurobiological account of language. According to this proposal the left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) plays an important role in unification. Research in other domains of cognition indicates that left prefrontal cortex has the right neurobiological characteristics for its involvement in the unification for language. A psycholinguistic perspective is provided on the nature of unification and the role of LIFG. more

Cultural variety and the origin of human thinking

2007 Haun, Daniel
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science Evolutionary Biology
How did our evolutionary ancestors make sense of their world? What strategies did they use, for example, to find food? Fossils do not preserve thoughts. Therefore, an cross-institutional research group at the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology use an alternative research method: comparative psychological research. In this way, they discovered that some of the strategies shaped by evolution are evidently masked early on by the cognitive development process unique to humans. more

In search of the basis for infant's first words

2007 Johnson, Elizabeth
Cognitive Science Linguistics
Infants recognize their first words long before they start speaking. What enables them to do so? A popular idea is that they track the transitional probabilities from one syllable to the next. Scientists at the MPI for Psycholinguistic found that this strategy works less well if the complexity of real languages is taken into account. Hence, they propose prosody, the "melody" of language, as an alternative starting point to learn one's first words. more

The first contact with an unknown second language

2006 Dimroth, Christine; Gullberg, Marianne; Roberts, Leah
This study focuses on the earliest perception and processing of input in an unknown second language. Scientists of the MPI for Psycholinguistics examine the effect of length of exposure, item frequency, and gestural deictic links between sound and context for word recognition and lexical learning in adults. more

Aspects of Language Production

2006 Sprenger, Simone
Cognitive Science Linguistics
Research on language production explores our ability to translate our thoughts into spoken words. The focus of interest is on the interplay between cognitive representations and processes, which together allow us to speak in a seemingly effortless way. The research described here addresses the semantic, syntactic, and phonological processes involved in speaking. Furthermore, it seeks to specify how these processes are linked to other, closely related cognitive functions. more

How the human brain provides the basis for wayfinding

2005 Gabriele Janzen
Cognitive Science
People spend a great deal of their time navigating through their environment. To be able to find our way home, we need to store important spatial information in memory. How the brain learns and retrieves the relevance of landmarks at key decision points was so far unknown. With using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging a group at MPI for Psycholinguistic showed that the human brain automatically organises spatial information by dissociating between places carrying information necessary for wayfinding, and others. Data revealed that objects occurring at navigationally relevant locations are stored in the parahippocampal gyrus. The selective neural marking for navigationally relevant objects was observed in the absence of spatial information, and without conscious recollection of the route. This automatic neural mechanism can provide the basis for efficient and successful wayfinding. more
An investigation was conducted into how listeners compensate for deletion of word-final /t/, which may occur in fluent casual speech (‘postman’ becomes “posman”). Behavioral as well as brain-activity measures show that listeners compensate perceptually for /t/-deletion using phonological as well as world knowledge. more

The Production of Single- and Multiple-Word-Utterances

2004 Roelofs, Ardi; Schiller, Niels
In general, speaking is a fast and highly automatic process. On average we produce up to three words per second while making hardly any errors (roughly one error per thousand words). Simple utterances can consist of a single word, e.g. when we name an object. The ability to produce single words is, of course, a core ingredient of the ability to produce larger utterances. The theory that has been developed within the production group assumes that lexical access is a serial process: A new process can only start once the previous process has been completed. more

Putting Things in Places: Developmental Consequences of Lingusitic Theory

2004 Narasimhan, Bhuvana; Bowerman, Melissa; Brown, Penny; Eisenbeiss, Sonja; Slobin, Dan
The concept of 'event' has been posited as an ontological primitive in natural language semantics, yet relatively little research has explored patterns of event encoding. The study of Bhuvana Narasimhan and her team at the MPI for Psycholinguistic explored how adults and children describe placement events (e.g., putting a book on a table) in a range of different languages (Finnish, English, German, Russian, Hindi, Tzeltal Maya, Spanish, and Turkish). Results show that the eight languages grammatically encode placement events in two main ways, but further investigation reveals fine-grained crosslinguistic variation within each of the two groups. Children are sensitive to these finer-grained characteristics of the input language at an early age, but only when such features are perceptually salient. Our study demonstrates that a unitary notion of 'event' does not suffice to characterize complex but systematic patterns of event encoding crosslinguistically, and that children are sensitive to multiple influences, including the distributional properties of the target language in constructing these patterns in their own speech. more
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