Study of Human Language
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
Intergrative Graduate Education and Research Training grant from
the National Science Foundation, doctoral students in
the Department of
Cognitive Science at The Johns Hopkins University
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," says 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 of Cognitive Science's second IGERT grant, and the winning proposal was carefully designed to build upon the first. It involves 10 faculty members from the Department of Cognitive Science, 10 from other departments on the Homewood campus and the university's School of Medicine and approximately 20 students, half on IGERT fellowships and half participants in the program but funded from other sources.
According to Smolensky, IGERT fellows and researchers are using the grant to conduct a wide range of research 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 applications with 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
Color photos of Paul Smolensky are available. Contact Lisa De Nike at LDE@jhu.edu or at 443-287-9960.
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