Advancing behavioral and cognitive understanding of speech (ABACUS)

Funding: 
ERC

New postdoc positions

Two postdoc positions on the evolution and acquisition of combinatorial speech are available for the project, one on experimental investigation , and one on computational modeling. Please follow these links for a precise description of the positions, as well as instructions on how to apply.

About the project

This is a European Research Council starting grant project that investigates which cognitive mechanisms allow us to use combinatorial speech. Human speech is unique because it uses a small set of basic speech sounds to make an unlimited set of possible utterances. This combinatorial structure allows us to make new words (such as “blog” or “app”) easily using speech sounds that we already know. Humans are the only apes that can do this, yet we do not know how our brains do it, nor do we know how exactly our abilities are different from those of other apes. Using novel experimental techniques to investigate human behavior and novel computational techniques to model human cognition, it is the goal of this project to find out how we deal with combinatorial speech.

The experimental part of the project will investigate individual learning as well as cultural learning. Cultural learning is a recently developing experimental paradigm in which cultural evolution is simulated in the laboratory. Two different types of cultural learning will be used: iterated learning, in which participants in the experiments learn from the output of other participants (thus simulating language transfer across generations) and social coordination, where a group of language users establishes a new communication system (thus simulating, for example, the spread of new words in a language community). Using the two types of cultural learning in conjunction with individual learning experiments makes it possible to zero in on how humans deal with combinatorial speech from three different angles. In addition, the project will make a methodological contribution by comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the three different methods.

The experiments will give precise data about human behavior. Constructing computer models will then help to formulate hypotheses about how our brains deal with combinatorial speech. Two main computer models will be constructed in the project: one symbolic, high-level model that will establish the basic algorithms with which combinatorial speech can be learned, used and reproduced, and one neurologically plausible model that will establish in more detail how the algorithms can be implemented in the brain exactly. In addition, these computer models, through increasing understanding of how humans deal with speech, will help bridge the gap in performance between human speech recognition and computer speech recognition.

The project will advance cognitive, linguistic and computational science in four principal ways: it will provide insight into how our unique ability for using combinatorial speech works, it will tell us how this is implemented in the brain, it will extend the novel methodology of experimental cultural learning and it will create new computer models for dealing with human speech. These are the challenging and exciting avenues of research to which I hope to make a contribution.

Research topics: