Registration for master class

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Preliminary schedule:

  • 09.30 -10.00 Registration, coffee.
    • (WE START 10.00 SHARP)
  • 10.00 – 12.00 Noam Chomsky: Questions & Answers
  • 12.00 – 13.00 Break/Lunch (free)
  • 13.00 – 15.30 Stephen Crain/Susan Goldin-Meadow/Robert Berwick: Questions & Answers
  • 15.30 – 16.30 Drinks

Anyone who registered so far can come; if we reach our maximum, we will inform you once you have registered.
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The Royal Academy & Utrecht University offer you the possibility to participate in a master class on December 13, in Amsterdam.

Invited speakers are

  • Noam Chomsky (MIT)
  • Stephen Crain (Macquarie University)
  • Susan Goldin-Meadow (Chicago)
  • and Robert Berwick (MIT)

The master class is ONLY for PhD-students, research master students and postdocs connected to relevant KNAW research schools in linguistics, psychology, neuroscience and biology.

Moreover, in order to attend the master class you have to register. You fill in the information below. NOTE that you have to formulate a question/questions for one (or more) of the invited speakers RELATED to the conference theme given below. We will select questions that can be orally presented by selected participants.

Biology of Language master class registration

A question you would like to ask to one of the attendees, related to the conference theme outlined below.

Conference Theme

Language serves as a cornerstone for human cognition, yet much about its evolution remains puzzling. Recent research on this question parallels Darwin’s attempt to explain both the unity of all species as well as their diversity. What has emerged is that the unified nature of human language arises from a shared, species-specific computational ability, one with identifiable correlates in the brain, that has remained fixed since the origin of language about 100 thousand years ago. At the same time, the nature of variation from language to language arises historically in ways similar to biological variation, and can be modelled as such.

Languages do change over time, but this describes change within a single species and is not to be confused with the initial emergence of language itself. Famously, the 19th century “Stammbaum” grammarians were the first to articulate a view of human language relationships grounded on the reconstruction of ancestral language forms by collating comparing sound correspondences amongst semantically similar words, arriving at a phylogeny for all Indo-European languages – a view that inspired Darwin himself to note parallels between language and species ‘family trees’. More recently, computational tools drawn from modern evolutionary biology and phylogenetics have been applied to language in an attempt to trace the spread of language diversity and date the times at which various languages diverged from one another, with some success. For example, the frequency of word use seems to follow a clear pattern of ‘descent with modification’, mirroring Darwinian natural selection. Other researchers have begun to address the seemingly microscopically detailed variation that occurs from one language variant to another even when in close geographic contact, aligning this with genetic variation. However, other researchers have sounded cautionary notes regarding the validity of biological models of language variation because it can be difficult to ensure that biological model assumptions can be carried over intact into linguistic domains. For example, the shared genetic endowment for language appears to be fixed within the human species. Since this underlying ‘language genotype’ is fixed, it cannot be informative for phylogenetic analysis, which relies crucially on differences between species (here, languages) for its basic data.

Recent technical advances in neuroimaging have greatly increased our understanding of these language-related processes in the human brain. Natural language and artificial grammar studies have allowed us to determine the neural bases of processing hierarchically structured sequences (Fitch & Hauser 2004, Friederici et al. 2008, Fitch, Friederici & Hagoort 2012). Results from studies of artificial grammar learning across species strikingly parallel the distinctions in linguistics between the structures that are characteristic of natural language and those structures involved in other kinds of cognitive processes.

There is no equivalent to human language in other animal species (Berwick at al. 2011), posing a challenge for the mainstay of evolutionary explanation, the comparative method. Typically evolutionary biologists examine species whose last common ancestor with humans is quite ancient, in order to search for evidence of convergent evolution, or conversely, species whose last common ancestor with humans is relatively recent, in order to search for features of shared, common descent with modification (Bolhuis et al. 2010). Songbirds provide an illustrative example of the former case. Songbirds are capable of sophisticated auditory learning and perception and of vocal production, in certain critical ways mirroring the developmental acquisition and production of human speech, even with analogous brain circuitry. But speech is only an externalization of the internal representations of language, which limits the comparative power of the songbird model. Further, songbirds lack two essential ingredients of human language: the link between word-structured sentences and distinct meanings, and the ability to process the hierarchical structures typical of natural language.

Taken together, the evidence on birds and primates suggests that three factors are important in the evolution of speech and language. First, neural and genetic homology: similar genes and brain regions are involved in auditory learning and vocal production, not only in songbirds and humans but also in apes and monkeys. Second, evolutionary convergence with regard to the mechanisms of auditory–vocal learning, which proceeds in essentially the same way in songbirds and human infants, but not in apes or monkeys. Third, the combinatorial complexity of human language is unique in the animal kingdom.

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