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Research [EN]

Do words have meanings?

In my work, I study language comprehension. Intuitively, most people think that the solution to cracking language comprehension surely must be to figure out how word meanings are retrieved and how they are combined to form sentences. But do words actually have meanings?

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A miracle of migration: The invention of the alphabet

The news today is full of articles about immigration. The media often casts it in a bad light, but did you know that it was illiterate immigrants in ancient Egypt who invented a tool that over half of the world’s population still uses every day, one that rewired our brains?

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Settling an old debate: can words help us see letters more clearly?

Letters are more easily recognised when embedded in a word. We’ve all experienced this effect, for instance when navigating in bad weather: it’s easier to read a word or name (like a road sign) than a random string (like a licence plate). But why?

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All mistakes spread a light

“Once a time upon, was a village there … what?!! The chamberlain was shocked. He was the third jester that messed all the words up. Maybe there was something wrong at court? Witchcraft, for sure! He heard other people having insane conversations, with dogs chased by cats and adjectives used as nouns. There was no time to think, and the king had to be informed.

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Imagine an image without vision

What is an image? What a stupid question, you think. The answer seems clear enough! Open your eyes: what you see is an image (my living room, a burning candle, the bare trees at the top of the hill). But do we need vision to have images? What if we were born blind and had never seen anything?

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Did the dog bite the man or was the dog bitten by the man?

People sometimes fail to notice that the second sentence actually means the opposite of the first: our comprehension abilities may not be as good as one assumes they are. Research has shown that implausible sentences with more complex structures are sometimes misunderstood in favour of the more plausible option.

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The prediction paradox

In everyday language, you can sometimes anticipate a word so clearly that you can almost hear it before it has been said – for instance, “it’s raining cats and (…)”. In such cases, your mind seems to automatically fill in the blank. Intuitively, these mental predictions might seem important to help us understand language. But, in the language sciences, the role of prediction in language has always been controversial. To see why, we first need to understand a peculiar property of language itself.

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Are we egocentric when we speak?

In a conversation, we often take into account the knowledge of the other person. You will probably talk differently, less technically, to your family about your work or studies than to your colleagues. But do we take others into account in every situation? And do some people do this more often than others?

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Finding the positives in every negative

“To be, or not to be?” Who among us a few months ago could have dreamed the famous fictitious ruminations of that great Dane would carve themselves into our collective realities. Negativity is inescapable in the face of a global pandemic, and in these times, the famous question itself becomes inescapable. From the responsible citizen agonizing over whether or not to attend a social gathering, to the doctors and nurses deciding who gets the last ventilator, and who does not.

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