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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 6, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 41
Grant to Fund Interdisciplinary Study of Language

Paul Smolensky

By Lisa De Nike

Which of the human brain's biological and computational structures make language possible? What can the recent advances in computer processing of human language tell us about the nature of language and the process by which children learn it? Is there a precise, mathematical science of human language and, if so, what is it?

With the support of a five-year $3.2 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant from the National Science Foundation, doctoral students in the Department of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins are being trained to tackle these and other mysteries of language from a multidisciplinary perspective.

"The goal of the program is to overcome barriers that have long separated the way different disciplines have approached language research," said Paul Smolensky, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins and principal investigator for the IGERT program. "The program is called Unifying the Science of Language, and its aim is to train a generation of interdisciplinary language researchers who can bring together the now widely separated and often divergent bodies of research on language conducted from the perspectives of engineering, psychology and various types of linguistics."

The result, Smolensky contends, will be a new generation of researchers with an unprecedented combination of strength and breadth in experimental, theoretical and computational methods.

This is the department's second IGERT grant, and the winning proposal was carefully designed to build upon the first. It involves 10 faculty members from Cognitive Science, 10 from other departments on the Homewood campus and from the School of Medicine and approximately 20 students, half on IGERT fellowships and half funded from other sources.

According to Smolensky, IGERT fellows and researchers are using the grant to conduct a wide range of projects delving into some fundamental questions facing cognitive science.

"After a stroke, a patient may lose the ability to understand speech while retaining the ability to produce it. How could our knowledge of language be organized to make this possible?" Smolensky said. "Or, consider that toddlers learn an average of 10 new words a day, and at a much higher rate during vocabulary bursts. What makes it possible for children to learn language at a rate that far outpaces their development in other areas of cognition? These are the kinds of questions that we hope to be able to answer."

Those questions may sound theoretical, but the answers may hold the key to the development of very real--and practical--applications, from strategies to teach reading and spelling to children with learning issues to therapies aimed at helping stroke patients struggling with language disorders.

Johns Hopkins is one of 125 IGERT sites nationwide. The National Science Foundation started the program in 1997 to alter the culture of graduate education by encouraging collaborative research transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries.


Related Web sites

Unifying the Science of Language IGERT program


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