A distinctive feature of human language is that it allows us to talk about anything, including facts about the world (‘The king of the Netherlands is a pilot.’) and even things outside the immediate here-and-now, such as hypothetical scenarios that are possible (‘Maybe the Dutch king flies an airplane right now.’) or impossible (‘If the United States had a king, he would fly a bigger plane than the Dutch one.’). These different types of utterances vary in the information they provide. Facts allow us to alter a person’s belief state about the actual world (if you didn’t know that the Netherlands is a monarchy for example, you have now learnt that we have a king), other utterances (such as the hypotheticals above) are not aimed to update the current belief state of the listener, instead they express various levels of information compatible or incompatible with the current world. Interestingly, people are able to differentiate these different types of information at a rapid pace, while making judgments about the speaker’s reliability and intentions, fast enough for them to prepare a response and have fluent conversations. How do we process this information so quickly? And how do we learn that utterances can have various discourse contributions and intentions in the first place? These are the big questions I touch upon in my research, looking at the neural correlates, development and processing of different linguistic structures.

Current Projects:
[psycho-/neurolinguistics, discourse updating, modality, counterfactuality] Investigating the representational properties of possibility language <Étudier les propriétés représentationnelles de l’expression linguistique de la possibilité> (2023-2026). A fundamental cognitive function distinguishing human language from other types of animal communication is our capacity to refer to possibilities that are outside the here-and-now of a situation, through expressions such as “maybe it’s a hamster” or “if only dodos hadn’t gone extinct”. Yet, our understanding of how we incorporate such non-actual information into our mental representation of a situation is incomplete. Combining behavioral and electrophysicological methods, this project asks whether information about possibilities is mentally separated from factual information and if so, what the structure of such potential representations are.

[neurolinguistics, acquisition, discourse comprehension] With Suhail Matar (NYU) and the Kidlang team led by Liina Pylkkänen (NYU) we investigate the neural bases of naturalistic expository discourse processing in children and adults. Our aim is to identify the neural correlates and temporal dynamics of establishing coherence, both dynamically within utterances, but also within the global text, to see how this neural architecture develops with age. Our work was presented as a sandbox poster at SNL 2020.

[acquisition, modality, negation, eyetracking] With Vishal Arvindam (UCSC) and Ailís Cournane (NYU), I am currently collecting data for an eye-tracking experiment to investigate 2-years-old’s understanding of the modal utterance maybe and negation. If you happen to know a 2-year-old in the NYC area (and their parents) willing to participate they can sign-up here. This work is presented as a poster at LSA 2020 (modals) and CUNY 2020 (negation).

Completed Work:

[acquisition, counterfactuality, corpus, experimental] investigated the development of the children’s (2-6 year olds’) interpretation of counterfactual utterances – contrasting counterfactual wishes and conditionals. With Ailís Cournane (NYU). The corpus component of this work investigating children’s spontaneous counterfactual productions is published in  Language Development Research.

[neurolinguistics, modality, belief updating] I investigated the neural correlates of modal versus factual processing with magnetoencephalography (MEG). I found increased activation for factual conditions over modal conditions and relate this activity to discourse belief updating. This work is now available at eNeuro. In collaboration with Ryan Law (Max Planck Institute) Ailís Cournane (NYU) and Liina Pylkkänen (NYU).

Other Collaborations: I think collaborations are important, especially when working on the interfaces. Currently I’m involved in the following collaborative projects:

[acquisition, modality, corpus] With Annemarie van Dooren (UMD) we investigated the distributional cues available in Dutch children’s input to learn different flavors of modality. A report of our study can be found in the BUCLD 2019 proceedings. This study falls within the research project ‘Acquiring the language of possibility’ led by Ailís Cournane (NYU) and Valentine Hacquard (UMD).

[prosody, sentence final particles] With Roger Lo (UBC) and Angelika Kíss (University of Torronto) we are investigating the prosodic properties and perception of different types of rhetorical questions in Cantonese and the contribution of the final discourse particles aa1 and aa3. A proceedings article of this work can be found in the IPCHS 2019 proceedings.

[experimental syntax, sentence final particles] In collaborative work with Paloma Jeretič (NYU), we investigate the combinatory constraints of elements appearing in the left periphery, and the role intersubjectivity could play in this. Our work was presented as a poster at the LSA conference 2019. Currently we are working to extend this project to Cantonese and look at the combinatory restrictions of Cantonese sentence final particles.