Scientific Colloquium
October 25, 2017, 3:30 p.m.
 Building 8 Auditorium

"Why Only Us: the Origin of Human Language"  

We are born crying, but those cries signal the first stirrings of language. Within a year or so, infants master the sound system of their language; a few years after that, they are engaging in conversations. This remarkable, species-specific ability to acquire any human language—“the language faculty”—raises important biological questions about language, including how it evolved. Until recently this evolutionary question could not even be properly posed, because we did not have a clear idea how to define “language” and therefore what it was that had evolved. This talk draws on on recent discoveries in linguistic, neurological, and computational theory that pinpoints the key ingredients unique to human language that distinguish us from all other animals, and how these might have evolved relatively rapidly from abilities present in our nonhuman ancestors.

About the Speaker:

Professor Robert C. Berwick is Professor of Computational Linguistics and Engineering in the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for thirty-five years. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from MIT in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence. Professor Berwick has been the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Award, as well as the MIT Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award, MIT’s highest honor for junior faculty. He has also received an NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award. He helped found and run MIT’s Center for Biological and Computational Learning for more than 15 years, and is the author of six books, including most recently with Professor Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us.

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