CNL Lab & Linguistics

Our first step in creating an integrated language science took place within a traditional department setting. With my colleagues in Maryland Linguistics we transformed the research environment to foster collaboration across sub-fields.

1. Linguistics: questions > methods

Maryland Linguistics is defined by its core questions, rather than by its methods. This makes collaboration easier. Everybody wants to understand human language as a cognitive system, to uncover the basic building blocks of language. Experimental. computational, and pencil-and-paper methods are all directed at the same goal, and most people draw on multiple methods in their research.

2. Environment: mi casa e su casa

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Language Lab (CNL) is the cover term for our extensive lab facilities, which provide excellent resources for research with children and adults, using behavioral, neural, and computational tools. All lab resources are shared; there are no individual faculty labs. The space is designed to maximize interaction between faculty and students, and between people with different expertise.

3. Curriculum: choose your own adventure

The standard graduate training model in linguistics gives priority to “core theoretical” areas. I regard “core” as a dirty word, and reserving the term ‘theoretical’ for folks who use specific low-tech methods pushes my buttons. We abandoned the traditional model many years ago, recognizing that it is a barrier to innovation. Our graduate program has no required courses. Breadth is encouraged, and is very much pursued, but there are many different ways to be broad. Students do much work outside the home department.

4. Culture: science is social

Good science thrives on a culture that is supportive but not particularly polite or genteel. At least, that’s how we do science. Our weekly lab meetings bring together around 30 people, including faculty from different areas. The meetings mostly serve as a proving ground for new ideas. A recent highlight is our annual end-of-year debate, where we do battle over an issue that we don’t quite agree about. Much of our creative energy gets used up on defense cakes, a long-standing tradition: when a student defends a dissertation or qualifying paper, other students bake a thematically-related cake. And to work off the calories we go running or play Semantic Valueball, a weak approximation of volleyball.