Research Organization

The research team consists of 41 Principal Investigators organized into seven focused, but coherent work packages (WPs). However, the WPs were only initiated to enable a clear and goal-directed management by providing an organizational backbone based on a decomposition of the human language faculty in its key components. On research level, the WP-structure was never intended as a straitjacket in defining our main research lines, but offering a framework for organizing our research. The decomposition and distribution of labour between WPs does not hinder the interaction between individual members. Rather, the organization of the research promotes interactions as much as possible. Each member is expected to contribute to the multiple research projects transcending WPs.

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.