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Learning from Language: How vocabulary helps to structure the mind

March 10, 2021, 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Location Online, Zoom
Posted InCollege of Humanities and Social Sciences

Does language reflect the categories of our mind or does it help create them? On one widespread view learning a language involves mapping words onto pre-existing categories, leaving little room for language to affect the conceptual landscape. Alternatively, many of our concepts — including some that seem very basic  — may derive from our experience with and use of language. I will argue in favor of this second view, and focus on two ways in which languages transmits semantic knowledge: (1) through its vocabulary, and (2) through the statistical patterns that we are now better understanding thanks to word embedding models.  Using a combination of experimental results and corpus analyses, I will try to convince you that language does not merely reflect the categories we, as language users, take for granted, but rather plays a key role in creating them.
Bio:Gary Lupyan is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his PhD from Carnegie Mellon University working with Jay McClelland and did postdoctoral work at Cornell University and University of Pennsylvania before joining the faculty at UW-Madison. The main question driving his work is: what aspects of human cognition are augmented by language?Pursuing answers to this question has led him to study the role of language in a variety of domains spanning higher-level processes such as visual memory and reasoning, to categorization and recognition, to basic visual perception, and has taken him on some side-roads such as trying to understand the causes of linguistic diversity and the linguistic relativity of programming languages. His work has been supported by the NSF, NIH, The Templeton Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation.