Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A workshop and book in honor of William Marslen-Wilson

I just spent two days in Cambridge (UK) at an event organized in honor of William Marslen-Wilson. William has retired from the directorship of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (Sue Gathercole is now the director). The workshop, Multidisciplinary studies of lexical processing, was a very nice meeting, bringing together many of the students and colleagues that William has worked with over his long and productive career. The workshop was ably organized by Talking Brains regular Matt Davis, with support from many others.

There were talks about all kinds of things, from word learning studies and sleep (Gareth Gaskell) to Arabic morphology (Sami Boudelaa) - two presentations I particularly enjoyed. Lolly Tyler gave a very good talk about testing and imaging stroke patients, with some interesting data about reorganization. Sheila Blumstein gave a strong talk about her imaging studies of lexical processing, although I disagree with her characaterization of the role of inferior parietal structures (this for another time). All the talks were quite good, scientifically and sentimentally. Lots of pictures of WMW as a young hipster, with a mustache, smoking, etc. A historical high point (for the psycholinguistic aficionado) may have been watching Ken Forster back off of a strong modularist position. (Stand your ground, Ken!)

In addition to the workshop at Cambridge, Gareth Gaskell and Pienie Zwitserlood edited a book dedicated to William, Lexical Representation: A Multidisciplinary Approach (Mouton De Gryuter). The book has lots of juicy chapters - including one dry(ish) one by me and Bill Idsardi (Recognizing words from speech: The perception-action-memory loop). I just looked through that one again on the plane, and I didn't even hate it.

Across the talks, two themes really stood out for me. First, virtually all the talks that incorporated a cognitive neuroscience angle (e.g. Davis, Bozic, Blumstein, Poeppel, Johnsrude, Rodd, Zhou, Boudelaa, Tyler, Marslen-Wilson) emphasized - either explicitly or implicitly - the critical contribution of right hemisphere structures. Ten years ago, it was still considered dodgy to argue that perceptual processes were mediated bilaterally, but now the questions are more about which computations are carried by RH structures, what are the subroutines contributing to perception, comprehension, production, and so on. A welcome change, I think.

Second, and less compelling, in my view: the hypothesis that lexical representations are episodic turns out to be the normative standard, as far as I can tell. Although I'm quite certain that many speakers there would have been quite OK with representational abstraction, practically nobody (Aditi Lahiri being a notable exception) put their representational cards on the table. The issue is, simply, that because there are all sorts of indexical and episodic effects, these are taken to be indicative of a representation proper. But ... this is neither necessary nor sufficient. Indexical effect =/= lexical representation. The casual dismissal of the nature of representational abstraction because an indexical effect was observed makes me crazy. I will return to this ...

Overall, a very good meeting. WMW has stimulated lots of research in lots of areas and it was nice to see his contributions acknowledged and discussed in this forum.



Matt Davis said...

Hi David,

Thanks for posting about the workshop. It was great to see you in Cambridge last week.

We're currently working on getting the video streams of the workshop presentations up on the internet. I'll post a link to TB as soon as we have these online.



Anonymous said...

Pot calling the kettle black?
While Poeppel, Idsardi & van Wassenhove (2008) had some fair passages in there on the representational question, this line was rhetorically Chomskyan:

"Assuming that the representation of lexical items is a discrete series of segments composed of distinctive features (figure 1d )—a view that is also uncontroversial insofar as one accepts the last few decades of phonological research [...]"

Ken Forster said...

Hi David,

Good to meet you at Cambridge.

As for "historical highlights", I feel I should point out that what I backed down from was an implied claim that I should never have allowed to escape my lips.

Full marks to Gerry Altmann for spotting the mental slip.

Nice blog.