Lorentz Center - Reappraising the Role of Linear Structure in Language from 14 Sep 2015 through 18 Sep 2015
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    Reappraising the Role of Linear Structure in Language
    from 14 Sep 2015 through 18 Sep 2015


Reappraising the role of linear structure in language

14-18 September 2015

Stefan Frank, Morten Christiansen, Rens Bod, Karl Magnus Petersson

Description and aims

In spite of growing support for the controversial view that sequential (as opposed to hierarchical) structure may be fundamental to language, there is no coherent research programme for investigating how language arises from sequential structure processing. The workshop aimed at creating a research community that addresses this question. The specific goals were to establish novel collaborations (in particular between researchers from different disciplines) and to develop concrete proposals for research projects, experiments, and models.

Workshop outcomes

ß  The intended bridging across disciplines was highly successful. In particular, some of the participating neuroscientists and linguists noted that they originally considered the other field to be of little relevance, whereas by the end of the workshop they understood each otherís questions, methods, and problems, and respected each otherís empirical findings even if not buying into the accompanying theoretical commitments. More generally, the cross-disciplinary discussions were very fruitful and miscommunications were rare indeed.

ß  Several ideas for novel collaborative studies were developed. We intend to put together a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B to publish the results of these studies as well as other contributions (e.g., review papers) from workshop participants.


We adopted a format focused around four small discussion groups, each focusing on a single theme. Participants were assigned to the groups based on their preferences but also making sure that all scientific disciplines (linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, computer science) were represented in each group and that all groups included both junior and senior researchers. Participants stayed in the same group for the entire week but because only two groups met at any one time, it was possible to join another discussion when oneís own group was not in session.

We began on Monday morning with four opening talks by researchers from each of the four represented disciplines. These talks were not research presentations but focused on cross-disciplinary collaboration from each disciplineís perspective: What are the specific assumptions, methods, and jargons from each field? What are common misunderstandings about my field and what is hard for us to understand about other fields? These opening talks successfully pre-empted potential miscommunications during the group discussions and we can recommend this approach to other organizers of cross-disciplinary workshops.

On Monday afternoon, all four groups met to specify the questions to discuss and the groupís agenda for the coming three days. Tuesday to Thursday were reserved for the group discussions. At the end of the day, each group presented their progress in a plenary session. On Friday, there were two plenary sessions to discuss what we had learned during the workshop. There were also discussions about possible collaborative research projects to work on in the near future.

All participants were generally positive about the workshop format and the discussion sessions turned out to work quite well. In retrospect, it would have been better to include a plenary session on Monday late afternoon, so that each group could present its questions and agenda for the week. This would have made it easier for participants to decide which other group meetings to join and would have forced the groups to actually come up with questions and an agenda, thereby making the upcoming discussion sessions more focused.