New wing of Max Planck Institute opened by Princess Laurentien

The official opening of the new wing by Princess Laurentien on 10 June was intended as a ‘celebration of language’. This is why the Princess, who is very interested in language in general and language development in particular, was asked to do the honours.

Open Day

A symposium was held featuring a lecture by renowned American geneticist Evan Eichler and performances celebrating language in all its forms, such as sign language, poetry, singing and beatboxing. While seating was limited for the June 10 events, the MPI will hold a public open day on Saturday 27 June from 10 a.m. for anyone interested in language or linguistics.

New opportunities

Geneticist, director, and member of Language in Interaction Simon Fisher is very happy with his new office looking out on the beautiful forest. He is equally delighted with all the cuttingedge labs in the new wing. This new building is living proof of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Psycholinguistics’ global position as a leader in language and speech research.

From molecule to brain

Multidisciplinary is the magic word. From eye tracking and virtual reality to EEG and molecular biology labs, the MPI has it all, thanks not just to its own facilities but also to its partnership with the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour and the Centre for Language Studies, housed practically next door in Radboud University. The MPI is a place where researchers from a range of disciplines are brought together to work on one main theme: language. ‘From molecules to brains, in one single institute’ is how Fisher puts it. ‘Studying language from so many angles in one institute is a unique concept.’

Language and genes

Genetic research into language was one of the main reasons for building the new wing. Fisher is one of the instigators of this field, as codiscoverer of FOXP2, the first gene found to have a link to human language development. By studying a British family with a profound speech disorder, he found that they had a mutation of FOXP2 which affected their capacity to learn spoken and written language. Ongoing research aims to answer questions in a much more extensive scientific mystery: How do children manage to learn a language simply by being exposed to it? Why are humans able to acquire proficient language skills within a few years while other species cannot?’ The big puzzle is: what makes a brain ready for language? Some of the answers lie in our genes. It is obviously a huge step from genes to mastering language.

The new wing is equipped with state of the art molecular biology facilities to study how specific genes influence the development of the brain at the cellular level. ‘For example, we can grow cells carrying a particular gene mutation, and determine how the mutation affects the ways that neurons grow, develop, divide, and differentiate.’ This already offers a promising perspective for the results generated in the new wing over the next few years.

About the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

The Max Planck Institute was founded in 1980 as a psycholinguistics institute in Nijmegen. The Max Planck Gesellschaft has many research institutes in Germany and further afield, but just one in the Netherlands: the Nijmegen Max Planck Institute. Over the years, research carried out there has ranged from studies of language development in children and adults, to how the brain processes language and how language relates to cognition and culture. In terms of the number of researchers and the sheer scope of languagerelated research the position of the MPI for Psycholinguistics is unique in the world.

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