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When someone utters a sentence, say (1) "Jill is a sailor", what is required in order to understand what they have said? A standard answer is that pretty much all you need to know is the meanings of the words in the sentence and the way they are put together (i.e. an understanding of sentence structure). However, in recent years this standard answer has come under serious pressure from those who argue that knowledge of what is said requires a wealth of knowledge about the context of utterance. For instance, imagine that Jill is a solicitor who likes to sail in her spare time. If we are having a conversation about our friends' hobbies and I utter (1) it seems that I say something true. However, if we are having a conversation about our friends' professions and I utter (1) it seems that I say something false; here it is not right to say of Jill that she is a sailor. What this seems to show is that grasp of linguistic meaning requires sensitivity to the way in which words are being used in context. That is to say, cases like these (of which there are many) seem to demonstrate pervasive context-sensitivity in our language.

However, pervasive context-sensitivity is problematic because it undermines the idea that language understanding could be underpinned by a special, encapsulated mental 'module' which deals just with language. Instead, it seems to show that understanding language requires a wealth of general and cultural knowledge, for instance about what is relevant in a context and what someone else is thinking. If it is right to think that language understanding is this very demanding social kind of enterprise, then this in turn has serious repercussions for such things as designing interventions to ameliorate linguistic impairments (e.g. in patients with aphasia, or those on the autistic spectrum) and for computer modelling of language understanding (since identification of relevant contextual features is something which is notoriously difficult within artificial intelligence circles).

The aim of this project is to create an international network of researchers to investigate the problems associated with pervasive context-sensitivity, and to explore the theoretical positions which have emerged in this area. Principal investigator for the project is Professor Emma Borg, Co-Investigator is Dr. Nathaniel Hansen, and the network will primarily involve researchers at the University of Reading in the UK and Peking University in China. The network will primarily involve researchers at the University of Reading in the UK and Peking University in China. However the team are keen to hear from others with interests in this area who might like to be a part of the project (for instance, by taking part in one of our regular virtual research meetings or attending one of our two conferences).

Contact us

Professor Emma Borg

Local organisers
Jumbly Grindrod

Guanglong Luo

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