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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.

Seminar Website

Professor Robert Remez

Leah Christman

All seminars will meet over Zoom for the 2020-2021 academic year. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change. 

Meeting Schedule

10/08/2020 Online Meeting
4:00 PM
Donald Trump and his Narration of Masculinity: A Book Talk
Norma Mendoza-Denton, University of California, Los Angeles


Donald Trump’s speeches as president provide many examples of narratives of masculinity where he elevates himself as the pinnacle of virility, strength, toughness—and whiteness. Wallace Chafe (1998) and other scholars (e.g. Norrick 1988) have written about the ways in which repeated tellings of the same story open a window not only into patterns of language, but also into the workings of the self. In the case of Trump, a revealing example of a narrative of masculinity is found in a series of retellings that Trevor Noah of The Daily Show compiled into the satirical Christmas video, “Trump’s Mythical Crying Man Yule Log” (The Daily Show 2018). In this video montage, a stone fireplace frames the center of an old-fashioned cathode-ray TV where video clips of Trump are gently licked by flames. The clips are taken from Trump’s campaign stops, speeches, and conversations with reporters, documenting fifteen distinct instances of Trump retelling the same story with minimal variations. The structure discernible in Trump’s narrative series is formulaic, with each instance filling in variable details, and recycled on many public occasions. Sometimes, the man is a steelworker, or a miner, or a farmer. Sometimes a group of men are crying. Occasionally there is one holdout in the group who does not cry. This man-crying-before-Trump sequence is a great example of not only a narrative of masculinity, but also a “comedic gesture,” where Trump dramatically drags his hands across his face to show copious crying (Goldstein, Hall and Ingram 2017). While it is well attested that politicians recycle narratives and inflect them to suit their audiences (Fenno 1978), Trump’s narratives go one step further, often revolving around self-aggrandizement, situating him as both the pinnacle and arbiter of toughness. The recurrence of this leitmotif is precisely what renders it an organizing narrative of Trumpian masculinity.

12/10/2020 Online Meeting
4:00 PM
Improving intelligibility and communication in children with dysarthria
Erika S. Levy, Teachers College, Columbia University


Children with communication disorders due to cerebral palsy (CP) experience reduced speech intelligibility and social participation, yet speech treatment outcomes for childhood dysarthria are understudied. I will describe the development of Speech Intelligibility Treatment (SIT), a dual-focus speech treatment targeting increased articulatory excursion and vocal intensity, for children with dysarthria due to CP. Results from studies examining effects of SIT on intelligibility and communicative participation in this population will be presented. Findings will be compared to our current research on French-speaking and Korean-speaking children with dysarthria and implications for treatment across languages will be discussed.

01/21/2021 Online Meeting
4:00 PM
When do listeners care about phonetic variation?
Molly Babel, University of British Columbia (Canada)


Spoken language is immensely variable. Some of that variation may be associated with social categories and some may be idiosyncratic to an individual’s voice. Either of these sources of variation may affect the typical patterning of meaningful contrasts in a language. Listeners certainly care about sociolinguistic and talker-idiosyncratic variation to the extent that they readily make social evaluations about voices, have knowledge about social-linguistic associations, and use phonetic variation in talker recognition and related processes. In cases where phonetic variation affects linguistic categories, listeners may need to adapt their systems to adjust to that variation. The question addressed in this talk is when do listeners care about phonetic variation such that it warrants a change to linguistic categories or processes. Across a series of experiments using two perceptual learning paradigms (e.g., Norris et al., 2003; Maye et al., 2008), I demonstrate that listeners’ adaptation to phonetic variation is bounded from a number of angles: it is modulated by the nature of phonetic attention, category typicality, and linguistic experience, but not social preferences. Together, this suggests that attention and experience either moderate the nature of the phonetic detail that is apprehended in speech perception or the way the phonetic detail is encoded for use in subsequent spoken language processing.

04/01/2021 Online Meeting
4:00 PM
Vocabulary acquisition in ASL: The role of early language experience
Naomi Caselli, Boston University


Decades of research has shown that the structure and acquisition of signed and spoken languages is often quite similar despite superficial differences. At the same time, there are at least two important differences between signed and spoken languages that can affect first language acquisition. First, sign languages are perceived and produced in the visual, manual, and tactile modalities, rather than the auditory oral modalities. Second, unlike the vast majority of hearing children, most children born deaf or hard of hearing are at risk of limited access to language during early childhood, which has lasting effects on many aspects of language acquisition and cognitive development. In this talk, Dr. Caselli will explore how modality and early language experience shape vocabulary acquisition among young deaf children.