Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics celebrates 25 years

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics celebrates 25 years of success in studying language acquisition, use, and comprehension

December 05, 2005

On November 30th, the only Max Planck Institute located in the Netherlands celebrated its 25th birthday. The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen was established in 1980 out of a project group led by Dutch psychologist Willem Levelt. The research is now carried out by an interdisciplinary team of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists, using the most modern methods, to discover the fundamentals of our language abilities: from language acquisition in children and adults, to processing in the brain, to the connection between language, thinking, and culture. The Institute maintains the largest archive of endangered languages world-wide. During the ceremonies, Professor Peter Hagoort, the Director of the F.C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging in Nijmegen, delivered the Reimar Lüst lecture: "What makes humans unique?"

They’d be celebrating too, if they were there: the bronze busts of nine pioneers of linguistics adorn the entrance hall of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Among them are Carl Wernicke and Paul Broca, who localised the area of the brain responsible for language processing. There are also busts of Clara and William Stern, as well as Wilhelm Wundt, after whom the street is named where the Institute is located.

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is celebrating its 25th anniversary, playing host to guests from Germany, the Netherlands, and all of Europe. What are the cognitive foundations of human language abilities, and how will language be implemented in the brain and used in speaking and comprehension? How do children acquire their first language, adults their second and third? How do thought and language influence each other and what role does the cultural environment play?

The Institute does its interdisciplinary research in a field defined by the search for increasingly precise answers to these general questions. Four directors work closely together, each with their own special area, in a flexible project structure. This common approach allows various methods of research to be co-ordinated, among them reaction time and eye movement measurements, the analysis of natural language data, and the creation and expansion of language and multimedia databases which are accessible from around the world. Computer modelling and imaging techniques with high space and time resolution help scientists answer the great puzzles of language and thought.

Plato said that amazement lies at the beginning of all research. But language almost always functions so smoothly that we rarely are amazed by its miraculous nature, the foundation of all culture and human society. We usually only notice language when it fails - when we have speech disorders, try to converse with a child, doubt that someone said something, can’t find the right words, or fumble around with a new language. These "crisis cases" have been the historical starting point for much psycholinguistic research.

The goals of the research are the psychological and neurobiological factors that allow humans to learn, use, and comprehend language. Even the name "psycholinguistics" signifies its interdisciplinary nature. Its most important roots are buried in structural linguistics and experimental and cognitive psychology. However anthropology, neuroscience, and computer science also play an important role.

The Institute has four major areas of research:

1. Language Production (Professor Willem J. M. Levelt)

The Production Research Group looks at mental processes that lead from thinking about what one wants to express, to the perceptible utterance. The utterance can be a sound wave, characters on paper, or a series of gestures. The research focuses on various aspects of these complex processes: conceptualisation and linearisation; grammatical and phonological encoding; self-monitoring and improving language expressed both internally and externally; and gestures. One major area of the Group‘s research is lexical access during small utterances. They form the basis of understanding the encoding of the construction of complex utterances - for example, scene descriptions.

2. Language Comprehension (Professor Anne Cutler)

The Language Comprehension Group is dedicated to the opposite process: from sound wave, or character on paper, to representation in the brain. The beginning phase of this process is crucial: the decoding of a continuous sound wave into single words. One particular area of attention is the processing of prosodic information like intonation and accent. Much of the Group’s work looks at comparative languages: to what extent do universal mechanisms of phonological processing - which are valid for all languages - influence the specific phonological structure of a single language? Are speakers of different languages predisposed in the same way to certain phonetic features, or does the way they comprehend language only develop during acquisition?

3. Language Acquisition (Professor Wolfgang Klein)

This group deals with children learning first languages and the various forms of second language acquisition in natural contexts - that is, outside classrooms. A great number of languages are studied, European and non-European. The comparison between acquisition methods and structurally different languages should offer clues to the different ways humans learn, as well as the development of learning abilities over a lifetime. Why do children seem to be so much more successful than adults? Thematically, focus has been on the acquisition of cognitive categories like time, space, and ownership, and how they are reflected in the structure of individual languages. These categories exist in all languages, but they are expressed in very different ways; how sensitive are learners to these differences? Another highlight is the various structures of sentences in different "learner languages", the imperfect systems which temporarily shape language in children and adults.

4. Language and Cognition (Professor Stephen C Levinson)

This field concerns itself with how differences between languages influence our thinking. A number of languages do not allow the expression of "right" and "left" relative to the speaker. What happens when speakers of these languages want to talk about such spatial conditions - and is the difference just one of linguistic form, or indeed anchored in the "way of thinking"? One particular point of research is the interplay of language, culture, and cognition in cultures without written languages; the last few years have seen extensive field research in a number of little-documented languages around the world. Most recently, Group members have proposed a new method for revealing the relationships, perhaps 30,000 years old, between different languages.

Online Multimedia Language Archive

Comparing languages is of particular interest to all Groups at the Institute. There are major differences between individual languages, and we can not defend general statements about how we learn, produce, and comprehend speech by turning only to German, English, and French. The Institute has built up comprehensive multimedia language collection and made them available world-wide along with tools and open standards - from storage to indexing to the searchability of these digital collections. The world’s largest archive of endangered languages is now at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen. DOBES ("DOkumentation BEdrohter Sprachen", "Documentation of Threatened Languages") is supported by the Volkswagen Foundation and known well beyond the borders of the sciences.

Bridge to Neurocognition

From the Institute’s beginning, all these questions have been addressed by scientists working in co-operation rather than unconnected departments. A whole series of research projects have been defined which bridge individual areas of work. In many of these projects, neurocognitive aspects play a key role: how is the architecture of language and language processing implemented in the human brain? What is the functional architecture of our ability to speak? How does the brain change during speech acquisition, and how do developments in the brain influence learning capabilities? What causes temporary or chronic language disturbances? As the field develops, questions like these will grow in importance.

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