Colin Phillips

What was the broad question that you most wanted to get an answer to during your time in the program?

The broad question that most interested me as a student, and continues to interest me, is what is the relation between grammatical models and psychological/neural computations. Before coming to MIT I had spent a year at the University of Rochester, where Tom Bever and others were working hard to bring linguists, psychologists and computer scientists together, and right after I arrived at MIT there was a growth in efforts to integrate theoretical and experimental work, thanks to an NSF training grant that David Pesetsky and Ken Wexler secured, plus Alec Marantz’ efforts in cognitive neuroscience. So it was a good time to think about such issues. Since my views on the relation between grammars and real-time processes were perceived to be swimming against the tide, people sometimes assume that I must have encountered hostility at MIT, but that is far from the truth. I found that people were very supportive and open to discussions on these issues.

What is the current status of this question? Has it been answered? Did it turn out to be an ill-conceived question? If it’s a meaningful question as yet unanswered, please tell us what you think the path to an answer might be, or what obstacles make it a hard question.

I think that the question remains very relevant, and that we’re currently able to pose the question in a rather more articulated fashion than was the case 15 years ago. We have learned a great deal about the grammatical sophistication of real-time processes, and in recent years we have benefited a lot from the use of explicit computational models of information encoding and access in memory. Our understanding of the neuroanatomy and electrophysiology of language is substantially richer than it was in the mid-90s. And linguists are increasingly a part of the conversation in these areas, including a number of very talented young linguists who are now entering the field equipped with skills that we couldn’t have imagined when I was a student. I am currently optimistic about our ability to make good progress on this issue.