Read my lips: UCL launches centre for human communication


The new centre will promote cross-disciplinary research between language, communication, psychology and neuroscience experts from UCL, the UK and abroad, who will collectively bring UKŁ4 million in research grants to the centre in its opening year.

UCL and visiting researchers will study the development and acquisition of human languages along with grammar, perception, hearing and speech. They will also investigate the genetics and patterns of language disorders, ranging from stuttering and loss of speech to syndromes such as savant, Down's and William's syndrome.

Professor Moira Yip, co-director of the Centre for Human Communication, says: "The whole field of speech, language and communication is exploding, fuelled partly by advances in brain imaging and genetics and partly by our increasingly multi-cultural world. The differences and similarities between languages raise issues of identity and of mutual understanding.

"Now that we are living longer, research into deafness and cochlear implants, aphasia, dementia and other language disorders is even more pressing and will be key areas of study at the new centre.

"Language death is another real concern, apart from the obvious cultural loss. Just as biodiversity tells us about the complexity of biology, a multitude of languages offers insights into the complexity of the human brain. Even if not all languages can be saved, we can try to study them before they disappear and keep a record of what they were like."

A one day conference to coincide with the 4th June 2004 launch will include guest speaker Ray Jackendoff, author of Foundations of Language and Patterns in the Mind. Professor Jackendoff will discuss the structure of the human language faculty, including how it might have evolved over the past few million years.

Projects being covered at UCL's centre include SYNFACE, a computer-generated talking face. The face is currently being tested in telephones used by deaf people, where the face 'listens' to speech coming down the line and repeats it. This enables a non-deaf person to use their normal telephone to ring a deaf person, who lip-reads the talking face.

The NumberTalk project is investigating how children with language difficulties learn mathematics, in particular skills like number processing and awareness of proportions.

Another ongoing study is exploring the pragmatics of language, such as different interpretations of the sentence 'All doctors drink', and word-coining, where someone might 'Houdini their way out of a cupboard'.

Professor Yip knows the pitfalls of human languages through her research on phonology – the study of sounds in speech, something that English speakers often struggle with when learning a foreign language.

She continues: "Ask the average Brit to say the word 'tall' in Cantonese, and they may end up threatening you by mistake. The equivalent Cantonese word, which sounds like "go", has two different pronunciations which give two different meanings: 'tall', with a high pitch, but 'to sue' with a mid-level pitch."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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