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"The Development of Negation in Language and Thought" - Dr. Roman Feiman, Asst. Professor, Brown University

Tuesday, April 23, 2024, 02:00pm - 03:30pm

152 Frelinghuysen Rd, Psych Bldg, Busch Campus, Room 105

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Abstract: You may have never heard the sentence, There are no pineapples on the moon, but you have no trouble understanding what it means, judging that it’s probably true, and inferring that if there are no pineapples on the moon, that means there are no dried pineapples there, no pineapples during an eclipse, and no one eating a pineapple on the lunar surface. You can do this because you know the component parts of that sentence and how to combine them in specific ways to think a specific thought, even if you've never thought it before. How does this ability work in adults, and how does it develop in children? While some words – like pineapple and moon – provide the parts to be combined, logical words like no give instructions for how to combine them. This makes the acquisition of these words and the development of their meanings an especially useful window into how compositional language and thought emerge.

Does learning words like no and not allow children to combine meanings in new ways – to negate them for the first time – or do these words merely label an operation that already existed in infant thought? Does each logical word (no, not) specify a unique way to combine content, or is there a narrower set of primitive operators (like the negation operation from first-order logic), which multiple words correspond to? I will report on experiments with different populations that can help address these questions: data from toddlers who are just on the cusp of learning these words, from older internationally adopted children learning English for the first time, and from adults whose language input is manipulated to simulate children's comprehension at different ages. I'll argue that all of this evidence converges on the same conclusion: that both a concept of negation and the basic form of compositional thought are available for children to think with before they learn how they are expressed in a language.

Bio: Dr. Roman Feiman received his PhD in Psychology from Harvard University in 2015. He completed his postdoctoral work at Harvard and UC San Diego before coming to Brown. His work draws on a variety of approaches and methods from cognitive developmental psychology, language acquisition, psycholinguistics, and formal semantics. Roman directs the Brown Language and Thought Lab.