Interviews

Listen or read the following collection of Scott’s interviews with leading experts and learn from their studies.

Dr. Morten Christiansen

Dr. Morten Christiansen is Professor in the Department of Psychology and Co-Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Cornell University, Senior Scientist at the Haskins Labs, Professor of Child Language at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University and Professor in the Department of Language and Communication at the University of Southern Denmark.

What is your background?

I grew up in a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark, where I studied sociology and computer science. I did a Master’s degree in Cognition, Computer and Psychology at the University of Warwick, England, after which I did my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Subsequently, I did a post-doctorate in Philosophy, Neuroscience & Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and another post-doctorate in Neural, Informational and Behavioral Science at the University of Southern California (and where I first got introduced to reading research by Mark Seidenberg). After a short stint as Assistant Professor in Psychology at Southern Illinois University, I moved to Cornell where I’m in the Department of Psychology.

What is your profession?

I’m a Professor of Psychology and Co-director of the Cognitive Science Program at Cornell University. I’m a Professor of Cognitive Science of Language at Aarhus University in Denmark, and a Senior Scientist at the Haskins Labs.

What is your personal / professional experience with language?

As a native of Denmark (the language of which is only spoken by about 6 million people), I’ve had to learn several different languages. So, language has always intrigued me but it wasn’t until I began researching the nature of language that it became a focal point of my career. As a uniquely human skill, I’m keen to understand how people are able to understand and produce language in real-time, how children learn their native language(s), and how humans ended up with this amazing communicative skill we call language. As such, I’ve been doing research on language for more than two decades, which has resulted in over 175 scientific publications and five books.

(Followup) You note that Danish is a more difficult language to learn for adults, as well as children. How do people acquire language? What is the process?

I’m assuming that your question is referring to adult second-language (L2) learners of Danish. It seems that independent of the method used, L2 learners of Danish have a hard time mastering the language (likely because of the opaque nature of Danish phonology). Learning to understand Danish from text is relatively easy (there are overlaps with English, German and French words) but reading aloud is difficult because of the deep orthography. The general hypothesis is that problems perceiving the relevant sound distinctions makes it difficult to learn the morphology with potential cascading effects for sentence processing as well.

We know that Danish children are delayed in learning vocabulary as well as morphology and we’ve conducted baby experiments confirming that the phonology seems to be the problem. In a project starting next month (funded by the Danish government: http://interactingminds.au.dk/news/enkelt/artikel/the-puzzle-of-danish/), we’ll be looking at the potential implications for adult language processing.

(Followup) What is the cultural evolution of language and what is its role in determining how people acquire language, with specific regards to reading?

What we’re suggesting with the cultural evolution of language is to view languages themselves as complex adaptive systems that evolve to fit constraints deriving from human brains (including social interactions across individuals). Linguistic forms that are more easily learned or processed, or more communicatively useful will tend to proliferate. Charles Darwin already hinted at this idea in the Descent of Man: “The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously the same.” (p. 59). Further underscoring the parallel between processes of biological and linguistic change, Darwin concluded that “The survival and preservation of certain favored words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.” (p. 60-61). Thus, what we’re talking about is not just sound-meaning mappings (though I’ve done a lot of work on that) but rather that cultural evolution shapes all aspects of language, form sound-meaning mappings to morphology syntax and semantics (see Christiansen & Chater, 2008, or my 2016, for an extended discussion).

Reference:

Christiansen, M.H., & Chater, N. (2008). Language as shaped by the brain. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 31, 487-558. [download: http://cnl.psych.cornell.edu/2008.html]

When it comes to writing systems, we know that these are the products of cultural evolution. Indeed, writing systems across time show evidence of being adapted to the constraints of the brain (there’s a nice 2007 paper in Neuron by Stanislas Dehaene and Laurent Cohen, “Cultural Recycling of Cortical Maps”, that makes this point very elegantly).

When it comes to understanding the acquisition of reading, many factors play a role. Nonetheless, a large body of work (much of it done at Haskins) has demonstrated that phonological processing and representations play a key role in reading (especially in word decoding). However, this does not mean that other things do not matter. I’m currently getting involved in studying a population of readers that have relatively low reading skills but no apparent word decoding problems. Previous research suggest that some aspects of their language processing is negatively affecting their reading (though they do not appear to have language impairment as such). So, I agree that there’s much that goes into reading.

Where can we find more about your work?

Most of my work are found in scientific publications. My work over the past couple of decades was summarized in a 2016 academic book, Creating Language: Integrating Evolution, Acquisition and Processing. I’m planning to write a trade book for a general audience on this work (and much more). More information about my work can be found on my lab website: http://cnl.psych.cornell.edu