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Cognitive science professor talks about love for research, teaching

By KATHERINE SIMEON | October 14, 2010

As you read this issue of The News-Letter, how are you comprehending the words that are on this page? How are you able to understand your friend sitting next to you as she worries about her fast-approaching midterm? How are you able to string a sentence together that will relieve her worries?

These are the little phenomena that Colin Wilson, Associate Professor in the Cognitive Science Department, is passionate about.

After studying at Johns Hopkins University for a semester during his senior year as an undergraduate, he came back to earn his Ph.D., then ventured to California to teach at UCLA. Returning to Hopkins in 2007, Wilson’s enthusiasm for his research is only matched by his passion for teaching, which he profusely exhibits in classes such as Cognition, Phonology I and II, and various research seminars.


News-Letter (N-L): How did you get interested in Cognitive Science?

Colin Wilson (CW): I first got interested in Linguistics, in particular, when I was studying at the University of Colorado at Boulder and I was fishing around for something to major in. I had started out majoring in Natural Sciences.

I took a couple of classes in Linguistics, and I just got really interested in it — I always loved languages. It was just a nice combination between my scientific and language-related interests.


N-L: Did you immediately connect your studies in Linguistics with the field of Cognitive Science?

CW: I didn’t at the time. I did not know that Cognitive Science existed. As I sort of progressed through my undergraduate career, I came to understand that there was a larger field [for my study] in Cognitive Science.

In fact, I visited here [at Johns Hopkins] when I was an undergraduate for one semester during my senior year. And I worked with some of the people who are now my colleagues and one who ended up being my advisor.


N-L: How was your stay at Johns Hopkins that semester?

CW: It was great. I had a great time. I had never been on the east coast before. So it was a different experience for me. It was enjoyable.


N-L: How would you explain your field and why do you think it is important?

CW: My specialty is in Phonology. We study the sound systems that are used by natural languages, what sounds they contain and how sounds are combined into words.

Also properties like stress and tones that you find in languages, although not much in English.

We have a scientific interest in understanding the structures of those systems and the commonalities among languages, also the ways in which they can differ.

We hope that [our work] is going to be informative about one module in the mind and brain — the language module. It gives us a better understanding of what its internal structure is and how it is reflected in sound patterns in the languages of the world.

So the Cognitive Science angle in phonology and in many other areas of linguistics, people are increasingly looking into other fields for techniques and methods that would be applicable and perhaps well-suited to answering the questions that we are interested in but are perhaps not as traditional a part of linguistic work.

These methods are primarily from cognitive psychology and computer science and related disciplines, and also to a certain extent, neuroscience.

So my goal as a phonologist is really to develop those techniques in a way to best answer traditional phonological questions. What does one know when one knows how to produce and recognize the words and sounds of a language?


N-L: Did phonology spark your interest during your undergraduate years or later in your career?

CW: It was actually quite late; I was a graduate student when I came to specialize in phonology. I don’t think it happened for any particular reason except that I had many research ideas to pursue in that area and not so many in other areas. It’s not that I am adept at producing and perceiving all the languages in the world–which some phonologists and phoneticians are quite good at.


N-L: Do you study a specific type of languages or a specific group of languages?

CW: There are two answers to this question. When I’ve worked with actual languages, I have tended to take the typological approach, which involves comparing many languages — on the upper limit, hundreds of languages — and studying their sound systems and trying to find ways in which they are similar and ways in which they are different and trying to understand their contributions to universal grammar.

I have also worked with artificial languages. Where in experimental situations, participants are taught small patterns that could occur in natural languages.

So then you could control the exposure to the information that they have about the artificial languages to a much greater detail.

We have knowledge about the kind of exposure children get when they are learning about their natural language.

When they are in the experiment, we know everything that they have learned about this artificial language. It is much harder to learn everything that a child has heard when she is learning mandarin Chinese.

[Artificial language experimentation] is increasingly a paradigm that is being used.


N-L: How are artificial languages used in experiments? Do you have a universal artificial language you use for multiple experiments or are languages developed for a specific purpose?

CW: The artificial languages are very small in scale relative to natural languages. It’s more that I took particular patterns that I was interested in from real languages.

There are still some open questions about how they are learned and what types of patterns can be learned in language.

I sort of took those into the lab and did it on a case-by-case basis. I did not invent a new language that could be used in a movie like Avatar.

They are very very small artificial language so that experiments could be done in a very short amount of time.


N-L: As an associate professor here at Hopkins, you balance a lot of time between your research and teaching. What is your favorite part of the “professor aspect” of your career?

CW: Well, I love the professor aspect of it. Primarily because if the questions in Cognitive Science are posed in a particular way, it’s very possible for people who don’t know much about the field to give quite intelligent answers to those questions and bring up very good ideas that could be pursued as research proposals.

I’ve been impressed at how adept the students are at being creative in developing theoretical ideas on the spot.

Ideas that may have taken some time to be developed by researchers and theorists in the field, students sometimes can come up with them very quickly.

I really appreciate that. I think that shows that people have a kind of intellectual openness that they bring to the class.

Sometimes people will say, “I’m not really sure this is on point, but I’ll say it anyway,” they are willing to bring up ideas.

Often those kinds of apologies beforehand are not necessary because those ideas people come up with are quite relevant. It is very rewarding in that respect.


N-L: What are your future plans? At Hopkins and any other research projects?

CW: I’ve just submitted a grant to the NSF with a colleague at NYU, [Lisa Davidson,] she was actually a fellow graduate student with me.

We are studying how your knowledge of your native language influences your perception and production of a new language.

In this case, it is not an artificial one. [Davidson] has done quite a bit of work on English speakers and listeners trying to produce and hearing Russian words.

We’ve been looking in more detail on precisely what is called the “acoustic phonetics” of Russian words and how those influence the perception and production of English speakers who have had no real experience with Russian before coming into this project.

We are studying people who know one or possibly more native languages that are not related to Russian or languages with similar properties, so their knowledge is entrenched in their native language.

But they are able to adapt, and they are able to perform better on certain types of Russian words and not on others and we want to understand why that is. They are all equally foreign but not equally difficult.


N-L: What do you like most about Hopkins?

CW: I really love the students here. I think talking with them about intellectual issues is very stimulating. That’s fantastic.

The greatest things about this place for me are really my colleagues who have a lot more experience in disciplines I am interested in.

So there are just a lot of people here whose ideas are particularly relevant and useful for my research and it is great to have them right down the hall.


N-L: Any advice for Hopkins students?

CW: They should check out the Cognitive Science major, because it provides a lot of flexibility. There are several different areas of concentration.

People find it a really interesting field once they get into it, but it is lesser known.

If you are interested in a particular field of study, do what I did when I was just starting — get involved in research early in your career.

People should be upfront about approaching [professors] to find out about them and their work. I don’t think anyone would be offended by an email or a visit to office hours.

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