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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Testing the Action Basis of Language and Language Production

The project tests a new theory about an old question: What is special about human language? This question is at the center of attempts to understand what it means to be human, distinct from species without language. The question is also critical because language is an essential human tool for thinking, remembering, and planning. It is intertwined with other aspects of human cognition including decision-making, problem solving, and memory.

Despite intensive research, it has proven difficult to isolate what characteristics are unique to language, which shares some features with other complex human capacities (music, mathematics) and with non-human communication systems (birdsong, monkey calls), yet it is not exactly like any of these. The project seeks to link language syntax (the structure of sentences) and nonlinguistic actions, such as executing a sequence of steps in cooking, by harnessing three distinct fields in its approach: language production, planning and executing actions like reaching and stirring a batter, and working memory.

This project could alter the landscape of research in language and cognition, more closely connecting linguistic theory to an important body of work in cognitive science and psychology.  Specifically, this work could change the course of research into syntactic planning. If motor planning processes underlie even a portion of linguistic syntax, we will need a major reconsideration of which components of language abilities are uniquely human; syntax would be at most partially unique.  Moreover, this work could improve our understanding and treatment of language deficits in children and adults, who often also have poor motor planning skills.  This research could eventually incorporate studies of clinical populations with co-occurring language and action impairments such as dyslexia.

Principal Investigator

  • Maryellen MacDonald
    Professor of Psychology

Co-Principal Investigators

  • Andrea Mason
    Professor of Kinesiology
  • Eric Raimy
    Professor of English and Linguistics
  • Thomas Wasow
    Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University
  • Daniel Weiss
    Associate Professor of Psychology at Penn State University