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Cambridge Language Sciences

Interdisciplinary Research Centre
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The Cambridge Language Sciences Annual Symposium is an annual meeting of minds, bringing together language scientists of all disciplines from the University of Cambridge and other leading research institutions. Please save the date for what promises to be an engaging and informative event.

This year's Symposium will be a hybrid event combining online talks and discussion, research content on Cambridge Open Engage, and a poster exhibition and reception at the University Centre. We gratefully acknowledge the support of Cambridge University Press & Assessment in making this event possible.

Registration open

You will need to book your place for the online talks and in-person poster exhibition separately. The in-person event is for Cambridge University members and guests only. Non-Cambridge attendees are welcome to the online talks. 




All talks will take place on Zoom and be available to view afterwards on the Cambridge Open Engage platform.

10:00-12:00 Research Dialogue 1: Endangered and underrepresented languages

Session Chair: Ioanna Sitaridou

‘Documenting the endangered Neo-Aramaic dialects of Iraq and Iran’, Geoffrey Khan Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge

Aramaic, a Semitic language, has a documented history of over three thousand years. The earliest inscriptions are datable to the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE and the language is still spo-ken today in several ‘language islands’ in various parts of the Middle East. The main focus of my research on vernacular Neo-Aramaic is on the subgroup known as North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA). This subgroup contains over one hundred dialects, which are spoken by Christian and Jewish minority groups in northern Iraq and western Iran. Most of the dialects are now highly endangered. They have been in contact with other languages in the region for many centuries, in particular Iranian languages such as Kurdish and Go-rani. The NENA dialects exhibit a fascinating convergence with the Iranian languages. This reflects not only processes of language change but also the history of the speech communities.

READ MORE: Geoffrey Khan speaker profile

'Language under the shadow of another language: implications and revitalisation strategies for Runyakitara and So languages', Fridah Katushemererwe (Makerere University, Uganda)

Eberhard, et al, (2021) considers levels of language endangerment as a continuum. On the one hand, there are languages which are categorized as vigorous and may even be expanding in terms of numbers of speakers or functional areas of use, but exist under the shadow of dominant language(s). On the other hand, there are those languages that are on the verge of extinction because of loss of speakers. In between these two extremes are many degrees of greater or lesser language vitality. Although languages are endangered differently, current efforts in documenting, preserving and revitalising endangered languages of the world have been dedicated more to languages which are on the verge of extinction, giving limited attention to more vigorous languages.

Based on this observation, this study presents evidence of varying degrees of language endangerment from two languages of Uganda namely 'Runyakitara' which is categorised as educational, and the 'So' language, which is categorised as moribund. The study answers three questions. What does it mean for a language to exist “under the shadow” of another language? What is the likely impact to a language that survives under the shadow of another bigger language? What approaches to language revitalisation are appropriate for such languages? 

READ MORE: Fridah Katushemererwe speaker profile

13:00-15:00 Research Dialogue 2: Atypical language development in children

Session Chair: Henriëtte Hendriks

'Dyslexia as a Window into Language', Maria Teresa Guasti Università di Milano-Bicocca

Recent research has uncovered deficits with rhythmic processing in children and adults with developmental dyslexia (DD) and an association between these deficits and reading. Other studies show a link between rhythm perception and grammar, and that children with DD often display language problems beyond weaker phonological skills. The literature also reveals that children with DD experience fine and gross motor problems. 

This research reveals a comorbidity of different deficits in individuals with DD, which seem to have a common thread. Reading, language, and motor activities are all activities that unfold in time and in which the single acts are interdependent. As such, they all involve “co-articulation” in a broad sense; that is, what one does at time N is influenced or somehow linked by what one has to do at time N+1. In other words, to co-articulate, one needs to be in an anticipatory or predictive modality; that is, she must be ready to act in the single precise moment WHEN it is required. But one can anticipate/predict only if rhythmic principles regulate the behaviour.

In our view, rhythm is a key to understanding what goes awry in individuals with dyslexia. We propose that a deficit in the anticipatory mechanism impairs reading, some motor activity, handwriting, rhythmic processing and language. We provide evidence that individuals with dyslexia have anticipation/prediction deficits, explaining why these deficits affect reading. Anticipation skills allow us to deal with timing and require a hierarchical organization, as we find in language and motor activities. We speculate that anticipation is a mechanism that has been recruited by language to linearize our internal thoughts, which must be hierarchically organized.

READ MORE: 'Dyslexia as a Window into Language' full abstract

READ MORE: Maria Teresa Guasti speaker profile

'Beyond the label: A transdiagnostic approach to understanding cognitive difficulties in childhood', Duncan Astle, Programme Leader at MRC Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit and leader of the 4D Research Group 

As our cognitive skills develop differences gradually emerge between individuals. Some of these differences can act as barriers to learning, for example phonological processing skills and executive functions have both been linked to difficulties in reading and maths, respectively. But how much are our conclusions influenced by who we study? The traditional approach to studying neurodevelopment difficulties is to recruit children with a diagnosis, or screen children according to a particular diagnostic standard. What could be learned with a more inclusive recruitment strategy?

We collected a transdiagnostic sample that aimed to capture the broad mixed population of children in the community at neurodevelopmental risk. Using a simple machine learning approach we were able to identify the different cognitive profiles that exist within this cohort, including a large subgroup of children with more selective difficulties in phonological processing. These difficulties extend to all tasks that require phonological decoding – such as phonological decoding, verbal short-term or working memory. These cognitive differences generalise. Their parents also report substantial difficulties with the structural elements of language, like syntax. However, this data-driven mapping has no overlap with formal diagnostic status.

We next explored the neural mechanisms that give rise to these differences in cognitive profile, by creating structural neuroimaging to explore study different features of macroscopic brain organisation. We subsequently developed a computational framework, using generative network modelling (GNM), to model these emergent differences in brain organisation. Relatively subtle changes within the wiring rules of this computational framework give rise to differential developmental trajectories, because of small biases in the preferential wiring properties of different brain regions. Finally, we were able to use this GNM to implicate the molecular and cellular processes that govern these different growth patterns. 

READ MORE: Duncan Astle speaker profile

15:30-16:30 Keynote: 'Re-understanding speech understanding: Closing the cohort loop'

William D Marslen-WilsonCentre for Speech, Language, and the Brain, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge

Chair: Mirjana Bozic

Human listeners understand spoken language literally as they hear it, reflecting a perceptually seamless process of real-time comprehension of what the speaker is saying. This remarkable experience of immediacy is rooted in the exceptional earliness with which information carried by successive words is integrated into the interpretation of the current utterance. But despite 50 years of research, there has been no accepted mechanistic neurobiological account of the brain systems that support this process. Only recently have scientific tools emerged that allow us to probe the real-time activity of these brain systems, telling us where and when such activity can be detected and what their neurocomputational content might be. The resulting research enables us, first, to reject the historically dominant account of early speech interpretation as a linguistically stratified computational hierarchy, centered around the notion of a phoneme, and based on sequential transitions between successive representational states.

We propose instead a fully distributed non-hierarchical recurrent neural architecture, active across bilateral temporo-parietal cortex, where there is no representational specificity early in the process; simply an optimised neural pathway towards the listener’s semantically interpreted speech percept. Second, we have identified a discrete left hemisphere fronto-temporal component that mediates the early integration of bottom-up speech constraints with top-down contextual constraints. Saliently, the time-locked phonological input to this integration process appears to be continuous, already present at (and before) word onset, and likely to be tracking the changing articulatory states of the source. This continuous flow of phonological constraint, providing partial cues to word identity, interacts with partial contextual semantic cues to mediate initial access to lexical form and meaning within 100 ms of word onset in sentential context, supporting an optimally efficient uptake of available cues to speech interpretation, and where the contribution of this early integration component terminates as each word is recognised. These proposals bring the core claims of the original cohort model into an explanatory computational cognitive neuroscience framework. 

READ MORE: William Marslen-Wilson speaker profile

17:30-19:30 Poster session & drinks reception, main dining hall, University Centre

With support from Cambridge University Press & Assessment


Posters will be hosted on the Cambridge University Press Open Engage platform and presented in person at the poster exhibition.

  • Xi Zhang, Faculty of Music, Effect of Tone Sandhi on Singing in Chaozhou
  • Ahmed Izzidien, Judge Business School, Hohfeld vs NLP Summarisers Capturing a documents principal legal relations
  • James Scott, Department of Psychology, Proto-Language as a Structurer and Enhancer of Perception
  • Yan-Yi Lee, Faculty of Education, Do different languages train our brain in different ways? Issues in the discussion of typological distance and its influence in the bilingual brain
  • Andrew Caines, Computer Laboratory & ALTA Institute, Listening practice for learners of English: towards an intelligent tutoring system
  • Yuyan Xue, Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Intentional inductive training but not explicit instruction on a novel linguistic feature produces Whorfian effect: Improving the label-feedback hypothesis
  • Yin Jue Chang, Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Sociolinguistic Diversity Can Boost Cognitive Functions
  • James Algie, Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, What drives learner errors in written L2 production? Surface overlap versus derivational complexity in the English genitive alternation
  • Robbie Barnett, Poster for the Incubator Fund project Named-Entity Recognition in Tibetan and Mongolian Newspapers (poster title t.b.c.)
  • Julia Schwarz, Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Poster for the Incubator Fund project PerMaSC:  Speech Perception through Face Masks by Children and Adults
  • Jonathan R. Goodman, Department of Archeology, Accents as honest signals of in-group membership
  • Dora Alexopoulou, Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, The impact of L2 proficiency on cross-language influence during L2 word-processing

Poster session organisers: Yuchen Zong ( & Aurora Gao (


Tuesday, 23 November, 2021 - 10:00 to 19:30
Event location: 
Talks online, poster exhibition in the main dining hall at the University Centre

What we do

Cambridge Language Sciences is an Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Our virtual network connects researchers from five schools across the university as well as other world-leading research institutions. Our aim is to strengthen research collaborations and knowledge transfer across disciplines in order to address large-scale multi-disciplinary research challenges relating to language research.