Featured Researchers: NTL Then and Now

Featured NTL Alumni: Terry Regier and Ben Bergen

Terry Regier, currently an Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Chicago, worked at ICSI as a graduate student, then a post doc, from 1990-1993. In recent years, he has been a frequent visitor to ICSI, collaborating with Paul Kay on color naming work. He has always been interested in the way languages "package" human experience differently via imposition of categorization schemes on reality. He is also interested in universals that apply to categorization. While working on the NTL project (then called Lzero) he focused on cross-linguistic variation in spatial terminology using a computational model that could learn spatial language. His model predicted several universals, which have since been proved through empirical research. Regier's current work on color naming universals, though not directly NTL related, has a similar scope. He is still very interested in the relationship between language and thought, and has been investigating this relationship through research on color naming, spatial terms, and language and grammar acquisition. A recent collaboration with ICSI's Paul Kay and UCB's Richard Ivry and Aubrey Gilbert on how language might effect perception (with relation to color terminology) was published in PNAS and reviewed in Science.

Ben Bergen, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, worked at ICSI from 1997-2001, exploring embodied construction grammars and simulation semantics. During his time at ICSI, he was primarily developing these theories as part of NTL. Today, he is focused on providing empirical evidence, through lab experiments, on what people simulate mentally during language processing, and on the linguistic cues that lead to specific aspects of that simulation.

Three UC Berkeley Computer Science Ph.D. students are conducting NTL research at ICSI as the foundation for their dissertations.

Nancy Chang, who is in the final stages of writing her thesis, focuses on grammar acquisition in early childhood language learning. Her work is the subject of a chapter in "From Molecule to Metaphor" by Professor Jerry Feldman (MIT Press, 2006) (See article about the book for more information). When a child first learns to speak, they often use single word utterances, but at some point they learn how to put words together to express more complicated ideas. Nancy's thesis looks at the process in which children learn the correct way to put words together to express themselves.

Eva Mok is also working on language acquisition in children. She is focused on how children learn languages which, unlike English, rely much more on context than actual linguistic information to convey meaning. One language that she has looked at fairly extensively is Mandarin Chinese, which typically drops subjects and objects of verbs, leaving the listener/reader to rely on contextual information, rather than lexical units (words) to discern the subject and/or object.

John Bryant is studying the way adults interpret complex sentences or ideas, using the principles of NTL. His work is based on the NTL principle that people combine words and context to come up with the "best fit" out of potential meanings for an utterance. This is known as "embodied construction grammar" and is a theory about grammar in which syntax and semantics are inseparable. ICSI's FrameNet project uses this type of a grammar to form its basic unit of grammar for the FrameNet database of semantically annotated sentences.