The Language in Interaction consortium is organized into five Big Questions, three Tenure Tracks, the Synergy Project, and a Societal Impact work package. In the first phase of the consortium, the organization consisted of seven work packages. At the mid-way point of the grant, these work packages were integrated into the overarching Big Questions.
SCOPE AND AIM
Language is not only one of the most complex cognitive functions that we command, it is also the aspect of the mind that makes us uniquely human. Most of our culture clearly depends on the human ability to communicate ideas and construct artefacts with the help of natural language. To a large extent language is constitutive for human interaction and cooperation.
The overarching aim of our programme can be summarized as accounting for the variability in languages and linguistic skills, and their boundary conditions, namely the constraining universals. Thus, to get an integrated explanation of how this extraordinary foundation for human culture and social life can have the properties that are so distinctive: a wide diversity of cultural patterning on a universal biological substrate.
Diversity in language (skills)
The diversity in form and content of existing languages is shaped by the interactional settings in which they are grounded. One of the remarkable features of linguistic phenotypes is that they come in very different forms, at all levels of organization. The sound repertoires of the more than 6000 languages that are still around today vary widely, as do their grammatical structures, and the meanings that their lexical items code for. Furthermore, sign languages are expressed by movements of hands and face, whereas spoken languages are expressed by movements of the vocal tract.
In addition to the variability in the world’s languages, there is individual variation in language skills within the population of any given language community. Some people command only a limited vocabulary and simple sentence structures, whereas others are polyglots speaking multiple languages fluently, or can do simultaneous translation between languages.
Language ready brain
Despite these differences between languages and individual language skills, most children master their mother tongue (spoken or signed) within about the first four years of life and with little or no explicit instruction. They command their native language at a remarkable level of complexity and computational sophistication well before they are capable of lacing their shoes or performing even simple mathematical operations such as addition and subtraction. Moreover, they are internally driven to communicate, exhibiting ‘proto-conversation’ in gesture and vocalization, and passive comprehension well before they can produce any words. This implies that the human brain exhibits a language readiness not found in the brains of other species. What makes for the language readiness of human brains, which genetic instructions contribute to building such a brain, and how does that language capacity build on the other systems of perception, action, memory and cognitive control?
Universality and variability
A hallmark of the cognitive sciences (linguistics, psychology, neurosciences) has always been to understand the basic organization and infrastructure of our cognitive capacities as shared between all members of our species. In recent times, however, we have come to realize that variability is as much a hallmark of language as universality. Recent advances in human genetics have revealed that there is substantial variation in genomes of different individuals, and that this contributes significantly to variability in cognitive functions. Differences between languages or differences in general input conditions, as for instance in the congenitally blind, have been found to result in variation in the recruitment of brain areas for language. Moreover, the different interactional settings in which language is grounded vary in their goals and cultural forms, which will co-determine the variability in language use and skills.
Insights into universality and variability will not be gained if we study language at just one level of description and explanation. Language in Interaction is characterized by structured interaction between experts in all domains of language research (from genetics up to cultural contributions) and combines this with insights about different cognitive systems that are in continuous interaction with language.
For all our research activities we aim for projects that are new, innovative, interdisciplinary, and of the highest scientific quality. Behind all research positions initiated there is the rationale that our consortium should be more than the sum of its parts, leading to research activities that go far beyond “business as usual”.
To reach our ultimate goal of getting insight into universality and variability of language(skills) by structured interaction between experts in all domains of language research, all PhD positions that are financed through the grant are distributed through an internal open competition. This keeps flexibility and quality of our consortium as high as possible. PIs directly involved in LiI are invited by the LiI scientific board to submit standardized, short research proposals for each call with two PIs as main applicants.
To promote and enable interdisciplinary research activities between all our members, at the start of the consortium each work package was assigned one coordinating postdoc with the specific role to create and promote new collaborations between LiI members, both within and across WPs. With the same aims, at the start of the second phase, each Big Question also got assigned a coordinating postdoc. To further strengthen their coordinating role, these postdocs are all involved in establishing their own lines of research.
We created three tenure tracks that offer a special opportunity for the very best young, creative and talented researchers from outside the research consortium to establish an independent research group. As such, these positions promote development of individuals and long-term embedding of innovative language research into our partner institutions.