Thursday, January 30, 2014

Postdoctoral position, Center for Language Science, The Pennsylvania State University

The Center for Language Science (CLS) at The Pennsylvania State University ( invites applications for an anticipated postdoctoral position. The CLS is home to a cross-disciplinary research program that includes the NSF training program, Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE): Bilingualism, mind, and brain: An interdisciplinary program in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and cognitive neuroscience. The program provides training in research on bilingualism that includes an international perspective and that exploits opportunities for collaborative research conducted with one of our international partner sites in the UK (Bangor, Wales), Germany (Mannheim), Spain (Granada and Tarragona), The Netherlands (Nijmegen), Sweden (Lund), and China (Hong Kong and Beijing) and in conjunction with our two domestic partner sites at Haskins Labs and the VL2 Science of Learning Center at Gallaudet University. The successful postdoctoral candidate will have an opportunity to engage in collaborative research within the Center's international network.

We welcome applications from candidates with preparation in any of the disciplines that contribute to our program. The successful candidate will benefit from a highly interactive group of faculty whose interests include bilingual language processing, language acquisition in children and adults, and language contact, among other topics. Applicants with interests in these topics and with an interest in extending their expertise within experimental psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience are particularly welcome to apply. There is no expectation that applicants will have had prior experience in research on bilingualism but we expect candidates to make a commitment to gain expertise in research on bilingualism and also in using neuroscience methods, including both fMRI and ERPs. There is also a possibility of teaching one course during the academic year in the Program in Linguistics.

Questions about faculty research interests may be directed to relevant core training faculty: Psychology: Judith Kroll, Ping Li, Eleonora Rossi, Janet van Hell, and Dan Weiss; Spanish: Rena Torres Cacoullos, Matt Carlson, Giuli Dussias, John Lipski, Marianna Nadeu, and Karen Miller; Communication Sciences and Disorders: Carol Miller; German: Carrie Jackson, Mike Putnam, and Richard Page. Administrative questions can be directed to the Acting Director of the Center for Language Science, Giuli Dussias: More information about the Center for Language Science (CLS), about the PIRE program, and faculty research programs can be found at or

The initial appointment will be for one year, with a possibility of renewal for a second year depending on the availability of funds. Salary follows NSF/NIH guidelines. The search is open to all eligible candidates regardless of citizenship. Applicants should send a CV, several reprints or preprints, and a statement of research interests. This statement should indicate two or more core faculty members as likely primary and secondary mentors and should describe the candidate's goals for research and training during a postdoctoral position, including previous experience and directions in which the candidate would like to develop his/her expertise in the language science of bilingualism. Candidates interested in gaining teaching experience should include information on teaching experience and preparation.

Application materials should be sent electronically to: Additionally, applicants should arrange for three letters of recommendation to be sent separately to Sharon Elder at We will begin to review applications by March 15, 2014, and will consider applications until the position is filled. The appointment can begin as early as August 1, 2014 but no later than October 1, 2014. Candidates must have completed their Ph.D by the time of appointment. We encourage applications from women and members of under-represented groups. Employment will require successfucompletion of backgrouncheck(s) in accordance with University policies.  Penn State is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workforce.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tecumseh Fitch’s The Evolution of Language – a highly recommended read

Guest post from William Matchin:

Tecumseh Fitch’s The Evolution of Language was published in 2010, making a quick review of the book a long time coming, and perhaps not as apropos as it might have been. Still, I found the book to be a quite informative synthesis of many areas of research in the speech and language sciences. A more appropriate title for the book might be The Evolution of Proto-language or perhaps The Evolution of Speech, given the author’s heavy focus on the development of vocal communication in humans, and much less discussion regarding the higher-level components of language, particularly recursive syntax. I was surprised at this, given the author’s contribution to the seminal paper The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve? (Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch, 2002). One of the major conjectures in this paper is that the core, human-specific component of language is recursion, leading to major questions about how it evolved and its instantiation in the brain. This was the main reason I picked up the book in the first place, but the topic is mostly avoided aside from some introductory discussion, perhaps for good reason, given the uniqueness of its place in human language (and the accompanying difficulty of applying the comparative method). The book’s discussion of syntax is nicely summed by the following quotation (pg. 185):

In conclusion, animals which actually generate call sequences that appear random seem to be exceptional, and in many species there are rules (or constraints) upon vocal sequences that can reasonably be termed “animal syntax.” However, the types of rules that govern these arrangements in primates are very simple compared to human linguistic syntax: they typically can be captured by trivial finite state grammars, and only the propositionally meaningless “songs” of birds and whales require more complex grammars. Thus, current data support the existence of a large gulf between animal “syntax” and that employed in any human language.

Oh well – looks like I’ll have to wait to figure out the answer to syntax. At any rate, the book is an excellent introduction into interesting nuances of evolutionary theory, the comparative method and theories of proto-language evolution, and has plenty of goodies that I think neurolinguists should pay attention to. Here are some salient points that I was personally unaware of before reading the book:

1. The descended larynx is not uniquely human.

The “uniquely” descended larynx in humans is often touted as indicative of the selective pressure of vocal communication in humans. It turns out, though, that this trait is not uniquely human. In most non-human animals without a permanently descended larynx, the larynx descends while vocalizing. Other mammals, such as deer, koalas, and the big cats (lions, tigers, etc.), do have a permanently descended larynx. What function does a descended larynx serve? The lower the larynx, the lower the pitch, which is a reliable cue to an animal’s body size. This is an important signal both inter- and intra-species for potential conflict between animals. Lowering the larynx may have been adaptive for humans as well, and studies show that human subjects use pitch as a cue to body size, even though in humans pitch is not a reliable cue to body size, indicating that perception of body size through pitch is a cognitive relic from a previous ancestor. Also, the lack of a lowered larynx does not appear to be an impediment for nonhuman primates to produce speech, given that (i) they can lower their larynx while vocalizing, and (ii) they have plenty of control over their vocal apparatus for other functions, like eating and biting.

2. A crucial difference in vocal control between humans and other primates/mammals consists of neuronal control of the larynx.

One crucial difference is the development of novel direct connections between frontal motor cortical areas and brainstem motor neurons involved in laryngeal control. While nonhuman primates lack these connections, their presence in humans suggests that an important stage in the evolution of speech involved developing neuronal control mechanisms of the larynx. This hypothesis is supported by fossil evidence concerning the enlargement of the thoracic canal in modern humans (including Neanderthals) relative to existing primates and earlier fossil hominids. The thoracic spinal cord is critical in the control of muscles for breathing. The thoracic canal is the opening in the base of the skull through which the thoracic spinal cord travels, and its diameter is enlarged in late hominids compared to earlier hominids and non-human primates.

3. Gestural proto-language theories face a very hard problem: sign language.

At first, this argument may seem counterintuitive: doesn’t the existence of sign language support the evolution of language from a gestural system? However, the hard problem in the evolution of language is why humans, uniquely among primates, use speech exclusively as the default signal of communication, and how humans developed such intricate vocal control. If a gestural system served as the proto-linguistic step on the way to complex language, why not stay in the visual-manual modality? The viability of sign language proves that there really is no reason to make the extensive evolutionary jump to speech. Arguments in favor of speech, such as communication at a distance, etc., face equally strong counterarguments in favor of sign, such as silent communication during hunting, etc. Given a community of speakers already using a gestural system, there appears to be no selective pressure on the development of vocal communication. This is not to say that gesture isn’t an important part of modern language use, or didn’t form part of the proto-linguistic system of communication in humans, but that a gestural proto-language doesn’t have much explanatory power as a bridge between the communication of our least common ancestor and modern language. Arguments against a gestural proto-language often come from experts in the study of sign language (e.g., Karen Emmorey, 2005).

4. Musical/prosodic communication is an interesting, viable theory of human proto-language.

Think birdsong, in humans. This theory was actually first proposed by Darwin, and supported by a variety of pieces of comparative evidence, and derided by linguists at the time. He noted the similarities between birdsong and human speech, critical facts such as (i) learned vocalizations, (ii) babbling in young birds and humans, and (iii) local “dialects” in both birdsong and human language. He appealed to sexual selection in birds as the mechanism that drove the evolution of vocal imitation in humans, and the emergence of meaning through imitation of natural sounds using both sounds and gestures (onomatopoeia and imitation of innate human vocalizations like laughter or crying). This last statement will probably prompt many linguists to point out the fundamental, Saussurean notion of arbitrariness of the linguistic sign against this theory, but the crucial point is to explain how vocalizations began to acquire meaning, not to account for the development of the rest of the lexicon. In fact, sign languages have many iconic gestures, which explains how the signs were first developed, but iconic signs are treated the same as any arbitrary word once the full system of language is in place by signers. So the theory gets you to sound-meaning correspondences, and assumes that arbitrariness took over from there.

The nice thing about musical proto-language theories is that they explain music – as an ancestral relic of our proclivity for structured, vocal utterances that do not depend on analytic meaning.

5. The importance of the comparative method in studying cognition, even in traits that are not homologous with humans.

This is driven home throughout the entire book, and there are many examples that embody the utility of the comparative method. The descended larynx is one example – larynges descended in other mammals, but this trait is not homologous to humans. The repeated evolution of laryngeal descent does provide insight into why such a trait evolved, and we can apply this insight to humans. Likewise for birdsong – birdsong isn’t homologous to humans, but there is much insight to be gleaned from studying it. In particular, animal models of the infamous FOXP2 gene highlight this quite nicely – transgenic mice with the FOXP2 mutation that the KE family has (speech motor control issues) show approximately normal vocalizations, but FOXP2 expression in songbirds increases during song learning in the bird homolog of the basal ganglia. Downregulation of FOXP2 expression in living birds show incomplete and inaccurate song learning. This shows suggests very conspicuous connections to the function of this gene in humans, and about how vocal learning and vocal control in humans operates.

The book reads exceptionally well – the points are laid out very clearly, and the main goal of the discussion is always kept in sight. Fitch also excels at exploring the theoretical foundation of many of our modern ideas – his exposition of Darwin’s thoughts on language evolution (and the observation about how rarely Darwin is cited about this issue) was interesting and fun to read through. Fitch is very fair when discussing different perspectives on the issues, almost too fair – he is quite charitable when discussing Rizzolatti and Arbib’s mirror neuron hypothesis of language evolution, even while pointing out important problems. He is also quite thorough, exploring several important hypotheses while not rambling pedantically through every possibility. If you’re looking for a book crammed with witticisms and ways to get undergraduates interested in language a la Pinker, you won’t find it here; instead, you’ll find a useful, interesting and exhaustive resource regarding the evolution of language (minus recursion).

Fitch, W. T. (2010). The evolution of language. Cambridge University Press.

Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, W. T. (2002). The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298(5598), 1569-1579.

Emmorey, K. (2005). Sign languages are problematic for a gestural origins theory of language evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(02), 130-131.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Two faculty positions in Psychology (Perception) at NYU Abu Dhabi

New York University Abu Dhabi invites applications for two faculty positions in PERCEPTION. 

The search is open to applicants at all levels (assistant, associate, full professor), although special consideration will be given to senior-level candidates.

Successful candidates will find a congenial research environment that includes supportive, highly motivated colleagues and broad opportunities for interdisciplinary research across the different campuses of the NYU system. NYU Abu Dhabi faculty can expect a competitive startup package and will have access to significant resources, including a new high- performance computing facility, a new state-of-the-art brain imaging facility housing MEG and EEG, with plans to add a research dedicated MRI scanner and eye-tracking facilities. 

The terms of employment are highly competitive and include housing and educational subsidies for children as well as generous travel funds. Faculty may also spend time at NYU New York and other sites of the global network, engaging in both research and teaching opportunities. Appointments can begin as soon as September 1, 2014, but candidates may elect to start as late as September 1, 2015.
Applications should be submitted by January 15, 2014 in order to receive full consideration. 

Candidates should submit a curriculum vitae, statements of teaching and research interests (not to exceed three pages each), and three representative publications. To complete the online process, applicants will be prompted to enter the names and email addresses of at least three referees. The referees will be contacted to upload their reference letters. Please visit our website at for instructions and other information on how to apply. If you have any questions, please e-mail

NYU Abu Dhabi is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Postdoctoral Research Associate University of Bristol -- School of Experimental Psychology

Postdoctoral Research Associate
University of Bristol -School of Experimental Psychology
Job number: ACAD100661
Contract Type: Fixed term contract staff
Working pattern: Full time
Salary: £34565 - £38907
Closing date for applications: 27-Jan-2014
Work Hours: 35.0 Hours per Week
Expected Start Date: 01/03/2014
Expected End Date: 28/02/2017
Job Type: Research and Teaching

Applications are invited for the position of Postdoctoral Research Associate in the School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol. The post is associated with a three-year research project entitled “The easyNet system for implementing and visualizing cognitive models”, which is supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. The project involves the continuation of the development of easyNet, a general multi-platform computer package for the interactive, graphical development of computational models of cognition. 
This post, one of two associated with the project, is a full-time position with a duration of 36 months, from 1st March 2014. We seek a candidate with excellent programming skills (preferably in C++, or another object-oriented languge) and a strong interest in cognitive science. Working closely with Prof Colin Davis (University of Bristol) and Dr James Adelman (University of Warwick), your principal responsibility will be to write GUI refinements and ports, computational plug-ins, and modelling scripts. These contributions will be associated with co-authorship on papers, including those combining these efforts with empirical work also conducted on the grant. You will also provide guidance to easyNet users. This will involve managing a mailing list and a website, and producing documentation for the easyNet system. You will also be expected to attend a number of national and international conferences in order to present work on the project and further interact with users.
Informal enquiries are welcome and should be made to Prof Colin Davis, or (0117) 928 7591.

Closing Date: 27-Jan-2014

The University of Bristol is committed to equality and we value the diversity of our staff and students.