The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. If you would like to recommend an LSA member (including yourself) for a future Member Spotlight, please contact Brice Russ, LSA Director of Communications.

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Jeffrey Lidz, University of Maryland

Jeff Lidz photo

Jeffrey Lidz is Professor and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland. Lidz received his PhD in 1996 from the University of Delaware and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania from 1997-2000. He also held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Laboratoire de Science Cognitive et Psycholinguistique in Paris in 1998. He was Assistant Professor at Northwestern University from 2000 until he moved to the University of Maryland in 2005.

Lidz’s research examines the relation between comparative syntax-semantics and language acquisition. This work examines the relative contribution of experience, extralinguistic cognition and domain specific knowledge in learners’ discovery of linguistic structure.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I think I joined in my first or second year of graduate school, which would have been 1991 or 1992.

Q: Can you briefly describe your involvement with the LSA during the time you’ve been a member?

I attended the Summer Institute at Cornell in 1997, have given talks at various Institute workshops and have taught at the Institutes in Boulder and this year in Chicago. And I was on the program committee for the 2009 and 2010 Annual Meetings.

Q: What are you currently researching?

I have a number of projects that I am currently very excited about. One theme that runs across several projects concerns the relation between language and extralinguistic cognition in syntax and semantics. For example, Valentine Hacquard and I (along with several graduate students) have been working on children’s acquisition of attitude verbs. Because children’s ability to reason explicitly about other people’s minds develops alongside their acquisition of words that make reference to mental states, we are able to see how the syntax, semantics and pragmatics develop in an interdependent way.

Similarly, in work with Justin Halberda and Paul Pietroski, we have been trying to leverage what we understand about vision and number cognition in order to explore (a) how children acquire quantifiers and (b) whether it is possible to distinguish alternative representations of a particular truth condition. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this work is that we seem to have found methods that allow us to distinguish truth-conditionally equivalent representations and to identify which ones people use to represent the meanings of particular quantifiers like “most”. This program makes good on the mentalistic promise that underlies our notion of explanation in linguistics.

Q: Tell us a bit more about your work with the Maryland Language Science Center.

The Maryland Language Science Center is the result of many years of hard work by many people building an interdisciplinary community. This work has involved co-teaching courses across departments, co-advising graduate students, building shared resources like a database for the recruitment of participants for experiments, and trying to build personal relationships across departments and theoretical perspectives. Now that the center is in place, my primary non-research role is in facilitating public facing activities, to try to explain the importance of research in linguistics and the language sciences to people who may not be aware of our fields.

Our outreach events have included work with high schools and middle schools, activities at public science events, serving as judges at local science fairs, and helping high school students find internships in language science labs. One of the lessons from these activities, that I certainly wasn’t expecting, is that they help to build community among language scientists on campus and they help all of us learn to communicate our ideas in ways that apply not just to situations where we’re dealing with nonspecialists but also to situations where we are talking about technical work to people in our academic peer group.

Q: What drives your interest in linguistic outreach?

There are two basic drivers for me. One is that the general public, even the scientifically literate public, knows almost nothing about language. People seem perplexed by the very idea that there could be a scientific study of language. So, I’d like to contribute in some way to changing that.

Second, I think that language as a phenomenon is underutilized by many disciplines. You hear a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity these days and I think language can provide a vehicle for interdisciplinary thinking in many fields. Language can be used to help students learn physics, through the study of sound, and to learn anatomy and biology, through the study of the vocal tract and the brain. Historical linguistics can be used as a vehicle for learning about what happens when people from different cultures and languages come into contact. And through linguistic theory and psycholinguistics, language can provide a window into human psychology. But in all of those cases, some basic knowledge of linguistics, and recognition of the basic phenomenology of linguistics is required.

So, I think that if more people understood a little more about how language works, the opportunities for using language to defractionate the way disciplines are taught would grow.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?

Linguistics has yielded an enormous range of empirical discoveries and generalizations. And yet the scientific community at large is unaware of almost any of this. The biggest challenges we face are in building a shared recognition within the field of what those key discoveries are and in communicating them to the broader public in a way that will put the citizenry in a position to reason about language science and language policy in a more informed way.

Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

Without a doubt it is Noam Chomsky’s 1977 article “On wh-movement.” This paper is a beautiful illustration of how theory construction and empirical research fit together. This paper provides a master class in using the output of one analysis as a diagnostic tool for the analysis of other phenomena and for showing how phenomena that are superficially distinct may share particular abstract features.

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Slow down your mind.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

The Summer Institute is an amazing community building activity. It gives students a vastly broader sense of the scope of the field than they could get in one graduate program. And, the intensity of the experience for students allows for the creation of relationships that will span their entire careers.