UConn Rises as Center for Language and Cognition

New hires in cognitive science include, from left, Erika Skoe, assistant professor of speech, language, & hearing, Nicole Landi, assistant professor of psychology, and Jon Sprouse, associate professor of linguistics, at the Lowe Atrium. (Photo by Peter Morenus)

New hires in cognitive science include, from left, Erika Skoe, assistant professor of speech, language, & hearing, Nicole Landi, assistant professor of psychology, and Jon Sprouse, associate professor of linguistics, at the Lowe Atrium. (Photo by Peter Morenus)

A child sits down at her desk to read from a textbook. She impresses her teacher by reading aloud quickly and accurately. She even reads correctly several words she’s never seen before.

But when she’s tested afterwards, she can’t recall details, and it becomes clear that she didn’t really understand what she was reading.

What happened? What’s going on in this child’s brain that makes her outwardly such a good reader, but internally unable to comprehend?

With the addition of a group of new faculty from across the U.S. and around the globe, UConn’s program in cognitive science has expanded to address these and other questions related to language, cognition, and the brain.

“You can’t see inside the brain,” says associate professor of linguistics Jon Sprouse. “We all speak and understand language, but the fact that we can do it effortlessly is kind of a miracle.”

Professors in psychology; linguistics; and speech, language, and hearing sciences make up the core of a group of researchers asking questions about how people learn to speak languages, comprehend what they hear, and produce novel speech patterns. Other researchers in philosophy, mathematics, computer science, English, anthropology, and literatures, cultures, and languages also contribute to make UConn, according to Sprouse, “the fastest-growing language research community in North America.”

“We’re capitalizing on the long tradition of expertise in language at UConn,” adds Diane Lillo-Martin, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Linguistics and director of UConn’s cognitive science program. “We now have a large critical mass of people in different fields who will be able to get involved in projects they couldn’t do on their own.”

The poor comprehenders

Nicole Landi, assistant professor of psychology, joins UConn from Yale University and is interested in the young girl reading aloud. In particular, Landi studies semantics, or the meanings of words, and how these meanings are represented in the brain. Her work uses a combination of electroencephalography (EEG), functional MRI (fMRI), and neurogenetic techniques, areas in which the Cognitive Science program is expanding.

“We know that some people are poor comprehenders,” says Landi. “So what predicts the success of reading?”

Much of Landi’s research uses EEG, a brain imaging technique that uses electrodes placed on a person’s head to produce a spectrum of the brain’s activity. A computational method then teases apart this waveform into event-related potentials, which each represent a brain response to a specific portion of a task.

Landi’s results have shown that skilled and less-skilled comprehenders have marked differences between the two groups in the brain waves that denote semantic processing. In other words, people less skilled at comprehension represent words differently in their brains.

“A lot of what cognitive neuroscience does is to demonstrate a neural-level event that has been observed at a behavioral level,” she says.

In 2012, under the direction of psychology associate professor James Magnuson, UConn received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program to train graduate students in broad language research methods, with the aim of breaking down barriers between traditional academic fields. Landi says this real commitment to interdisciplinary study was a major draw for her. She hopes also to collaborate with new assistant professor Erika Skoe, whose work uses EEG to study how socioeconomic status can affect hearing and comprehension.

While Landi and Skoe’s research is focused on experiments and applied research, other cognitive scientists work at the theoretical level with the same goal: to understand how the brain represents and processes language.

Sound judgment

“Linguistics has an expansive and complicated theory, and is one of the founding fields of cognitive science,” explains Sprouse. “As linguists, we take results from the best of methods – experiments, statistical methods, EEG, and so on – and then fold them back into linguistic theory.”

Sprouse’s interests lie in syntax, which involves the theory and structure of sentences. Syntacticians, he says, want to know what steps people take in their brains to construct those sentences.

To understand better what makes a “good” sentence, linguists often use acceptability judgments, in which they ask native speakers of a language to judge how natural different kinds of sentences sound to them. Linguists then use a variety of methods, including statistics, to figure out what the patterns are for acceptable and unacceptable sentences, and develop theories to explain those patterns.

For example, some of Sprouse’s work focuses on why, in English, sentences that ask questions are often an inverted form of a declarative sentence. This phenomenon also happens in Spanish, German, and French, but not in Chinese, Japanese, or Hindi.

These assessments are particularly important in under-studied languages, such as those in Asia, Africa, and even Eastern Europe, says Sprouse. To this end, the cognitive science program recently purchased a portable EEG machine, so scientists can travel to the far reaches of other countries and ask people for linguistic judgments, in addition to gathering data on their brain function. A new cognitive science wing in the recently-renovated Arjona building will also provide laboratory and work space for researchers from different departments.

This type of investment is part of what attracted Sprouse and Landi to UConn.

“We have very strong people here at various levels who are very well known,” says Lillo-Martin. “We’re moving from being a school that has interests in cognitive science to one that is known for it.”

Adds Sprouse, “Very few public universities in the U.S. have invested on this scale in cognitive science. There’s a great groundwork set here, and I don’t know who wouldn’t want to be part of that.”

Other new faculty affiliated with the cognitive science program include professor of psychology Edward Large; professor of psychology Gerry Altmann and assistant professor of psychology Eiling Yee, both joining UConn in 2014; associate professor of linguistics Stefan Kaufmann; professor of philosophy Mitchell Green; and professor of philosophy Dorit Bar-On, joining UConn in 2014.

By Christine Buckley, CLAS

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