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What can the study of language contribute to our understanding of human nature? This question motivates research spanning many intellectual constituencies, for its range exceeds the scope of any one of the core disciplines. The technical study of language has developed across anthropology, electrical engineering, linguistics, neurology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, and influential research of the recent era of cognitive science have occurred when disciplinary boundaries were transcended. The seminar is a forum for convening this research community of broadly differing expertise, within and beyond the University. As a meeting ground for regular discussion of current events and fundamental questions, the University Seminar on Language and Cognition will direct its focus to the latest breakthroughs and the developing concerns of the scientific community studying language.

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Robert Remez

Xinming Zhou

Meeting Schedule

09/21/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:00 PM
POSTPONED--How infants make sense of speech, and how we can find out
Daniel Swingley, University of Pennsylvania


Laboratory experiments from the early 1970s to the 1990s set much of the agenda for infant speech perception research to the present day, emphasizing infants’ cognitive skills and using theoretical tools given by the cognitive psychology of perceptual categorization. I will argue that it is time to reconsider. Infants are both more and less competent than we once thought. Even more important, parental speech does not appear to have the properties required and presupposed by the usual “statistical learning” accounts of category learning and word-form discovery. I will defend these points and propose that we should use different intuitions in contemplating the infant’s path toward language understanding. In particular, we should try to imagine the infant’s organic path, rather than setting the infant targets from the mature language.