PhD on iterated learning of combinatorial speech

We are looking for someone who has (or who is about to complete) a master’s degree in psycholinguistics, cognitive science or equivalent. You will work on a PhD project that is part of Bart de Boer’s ERC starting grant ABACUS project.

The ABACUS project

ABACUS is a European Research Council funded project that attempts to advance our understanding of the evolution of (potentially language-specific) cognitive adaptations for speech. It focuses on combinatorial speech: the ability to combine a limited number of building blocks into an unlimited number of utterances according to learned rules. An important open question is how much of combinatorial speech is due to general cognitive abilities in combination with cultural evolution and how much is due to language-specific cognitive biases. The project combines individual and iterated learning experiments with computational modeling in order to address this question.

The PhD project

Your work consists of designing, performing and describing iterated learning experiments based on learning and reproduction of continuous, speech-like signals. You will closely cooperate with computational modelers and (PhD) students investigating individual learning.

We are looking for candidates with a serious interest in a scientific career, with good writing skills and with experience in doing experiments with human participants. Experience with speech/language research as well as affinity with computational models are a plus.

Theme: Experiments on emergence of combinatorial structure in speech.

Aim: To design and perform iterated learning experiments where participants develop repertoires of signals in different modalities and different communicative settings.

Research questions: Does combinatorial structure emerge in iterated learning through transfer from one generation to the next, or through social coordination, or both? How does this process work? Does the modality of the signals play a role in this? Does the communicative setting play a role in this?

Method: Experiments in the iterated learning and social coordination framework.


You apply for a four year PhD scholarship of approximately € 36 000 (before taxes) per year, with additional money to visit conferences and to hire research assistants. You will work in a recently formed international and interdisciplinary research group. The group is part of the computer science department, but it investigates questions about (the evolution of) cognition and language, using a combination of experiment and computer modeling. You will be asked to do a limited amount of teaching and supervision, but that will take up no more than 20% of your working time. As part of your PhD project, you will have the possibility to spend a few months at a different institute.

How to Apply

We need a letter of motivation, a CV, a copy of your master’s thesis (or in case you have not completed this, another sample of your writing), a list of your grades and the contact information of two people who can provide references. Please send these in pdf format to Bart de Boer: mentioning “ABACUS PhD1” in the subject. For inquiries you can send a message to this same address, or phone +32 2 629 3700. The deadline for application is July first, 2012.

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel has been a leading player in Flemish Higher Education for 40 years. The University has 10.000 students and together with its hospital employs more than 5.500 people.

The following form part of the University’s mission:

  • the development, the communication and the application of a high level of academic education and scientific research, free from all preconceived ideas;
  • the translation of these ideals and knowledge into society in the spirit of social engagement;
  • the creation of a society in which everyone is capable of engaging in critical thinking.

Working environment

As an employee of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel you work in a dynamic, diverse and multilingual environment. Both our campuses are set within green oases on the outskirts of the centre of the capital of Flanders, Belgium and Europe. This centre, with all its opportunities, is within reach by public transport in less than half an hour.

Depending on your experience and academic merits you will receive a salary on one of the pay scales laid down by the government. Health insurance and free use of public transport for travel to and from work are standard conditions of employment. If you would rather cycle to work, compensation is also available for that. Both campuses have extensive sporting facilities that are at your disposal and a nursery is within walking distance.

More information is available at under the heading ‘future employees’