Email Print Share

Media Advisory 08-007

Maryland Professor Discusses How Language is Understood

New findings give insight into language acquisition

January 22, 2008

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) invites media and members of the public to a presentation on language understanding sponsored by the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate. Colin Phillips, associate professor, department of linguistics, University of Maryland, will explore why people appear to understand their native languages immediately and on a word by word basis.

How do people understand their native language if it has a different word order and different sentence structure from English? The talk will draw on recent language findings and tools from linguistics, psychology and cognitive neuroscience to answer this and other questions.

The presentation will be held at NSF and visitors must have a pass to gain access. Please contact Bobbie Mixon, media officer for SBE, at (703) 292-8485, or to attend.

Who: Colin Phillips, associate professor, Department of Linguistics and the Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at the University of Maryland

What: NSF Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Distinguished Lecture: "Are All Languages Understood in the Same Way?"

When: 12:00 - 2:00 p.m., Jan 24, 2008.

Where: National Science Foundation, Room 110.

4201 Wilson Blvd.

Arlington, VA 22230 (Ballston Metro stop)

Enter at corner of 9th & Stuart Streets.

For directions, see:



Colin Phillips is associate professor in the Department of Linguistics and the Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at the University of Maryland, where he is co-director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Language Lab. His main research interest is in developing models of human grammatical knowledge that link high-level linguistic findings to neurally grounded implementation. He held an NSF CAREER award from 2000-2005. For additional information visit Phillips' Web site at:


When listening to or reading our native language, we have the intuition of immediate understanding. We build up an interpretation of incoming sentences word-by-word, following the word order of English. However, there is dramatic variation in word order across the languages of the world, raising the question of whether interpretations are built up differently in different languages, e.g., depending on whether the verb appears early or at the end of a sentence. This talk discusses recent cross-language findings that bear on these questions, drawing on tools from linguistics, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. A key mechanism that appears to support rapid, accurate, and generally effortless understanding across languages is the ability to rapidly generate expectations about upcoming words, which can be compared to the actual input.

Shortcomings of this mechanism in a non-native language may help to explain why comprehension is so much less robust in a second language.

Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, National Science Foundation, 703-292-8485, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

mail icon Get News Updates by Email 

Connect with us online
NSF website:
NSF News:
For News Media:
Awards database:

Follow us on social