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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 continue to meet virtually through February 2022. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change.

Meeting Schedule

09/23/2021 Online Meeting
4:00 PM
In the Beginning There Were No Words
Herbert Terrace, Columbia University


The literature on the evolution of language has focused mainly on the origins of grammar. Yet grammar could not evolve without words, whose origins have received virtually no attention. I will describe the remarkable shift from animal communication to words and discuss their phylogenetic and ontogenetic origins. My focus will be on non-verbal emotional and cognitive relations between an infant and her mother during the infant’s first year that are crucial for the initial production of words. Those relations are uniquely human.

12/02/2021 Online Meeting
4:00 PM
How Gesture Facilitates Communication
Sotaro Kita, University of Warwick (England, UK)


When people speak, they often spontaneously produce gestures. Co-speech gestures can depict action, motion and shape as if to pantomime an action or to draw a sketch in the air; we call such gestures iconic gestures. How do co-speech iconic gestures contribute to communication? I will discuss experimental studies that indicate three ways in which co-speech iconic gestures can communicate. First, perhaps not surprisingly, iconic gestures can convey spatio-motoric contents to the recipient. Second, iconic gestures can bring the recipient's attention to a particular part of the physical context of communication, not unlike pointing gestures. Third, iconic gestures can change the recipient's impression of the gesture producer. More specifically, iconic gestures make the gesture producer look more competent and knowledgeable. Taken together, co-speech iconic gestures contribute to three important aspects of communication: contents, communication event, and sender-recipient relationship.

01/20/2022 Online Meeting
4:00 PM
The Language and Thought Interface in Development: Three Puzzles in Spatial Cognition
Anna Shusterman, Wesleyan University


How do language and thought interact during development focusing on the case of spatial cognition, I will share data from three lines of work-in-progress that present puzzles about the relationship between linguistic and non-linguistic representations. The three puzzles will focus on the development of spatial reorientation, spatial frames of reference, and axes of symmetry. In each case, there is initial apparent alignment between language and thought that disappears under closer examination. These findings pose challenges for simple hypotheses about the language-cognition interface, and they force a reconsideration of theories about the mechanisms that explain how spatial language and thought are connected in development.

02/24/2022 Online Meeting
4:00 PM

John Sakata, McGill University (Canada)

03/24/2022 Location TBD
4:00 PM

Jet Vonk, Columbia University

04/21/2022 Location TBD
4:00 PM

Sandeep Prasada, Hunter College, CUNY