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Interdisciplinarity: The art of unsettling multiple disciplines

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dimitri Kartsaklis.

Charles Darwin once said that “it is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”. On first encounter, many may find interdisciplinarity unsettling as it appears to devalue disciplinary expertise and the identity that comes with such expertise. And maybe it really does: integrative interdisciplinarity relies on mutually complementary theories, shared testable hypotheses, and interspersed methodological endeavour. Anything that is shared across disciplines will, by definition, not coincide with anyone’s customary way of doing things.

In my talk I will present two case studies to illustrate the rationale behind the Leverhulme- funded research project “Out of Our Minds”. The overarching aim of this project is to propose a novel way of describing language data that yields a cognitively plausible description of speakers’ linguistic knowledge. The research methodology combines corpus-based analyses, behavioural experimentation and computational modelling, thereby embodying the true interdisciplinary core of what we like to call Language Sciences.

The first study scrutinizes the role orthographic and semantic information play in the behaviour of skilled readers. Reading latencies from a self-paced sentence reading experiment in which Russian near-synonymous verbs were manipulated appear well- predicted by a complex interplay of bottom-up and top-down support from orthography and semantics. Individual differences in mental speed modulate this interplay and show a fascinating complexity at the interface of language and behaviour.

The second study sheds new light on seemingly unmotivated allomorphy in the genitive singular of Polish masculine nouns and demonstrates how biologically inspired machine learning techniques can pinpoint the essence of native speaker intuitions. The model explains the unexpected preference of -a as genitive ending for new words in terms of the learnability of words taking that ending, their phonological predictability and their contextual typicality.

On their own linguists and psychologists would have approached these questions rather differently, and would have arrived at answers that would necessarily have remained partial. I hope that the prospects for further investigation that this interdisciplinary approach opens up will convince linguists, psychologists and computer scientists to bury the hatchet, relic of old disciplines bound by (parochial) traditions, and to set off on a joint journey towards a unifying perspective on language phenomena.

This talk is part of the Language Technology Lab Seminars series.

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