Colin Phillips is Professor and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland, where he also serves as Director of the Maryland Language Science Center, and Associate Director of the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program. After completing a BA at Oxford University, focusing mostly on medieval German literature, he came to the US on a bit of a lark in 1990, and he has been here ever since. After a transformative year at the University of Rochester, where he met cognitive science and his wife Andrea Zukowski, he did a PhD at MIT and then taught for 3 years at the University of Delaware, before moving to Maryland in 2000. His research interests are primarily in psycholinguistics, cognitive neuroscience, and language acquisition, and their relevance for cognitive models of grammar. He has received over $10 million in grants for his research and education projects, including two NSF graduate training grants. He is at his happiest when combining his passions for language and endurance sports, and this led him to create Team Psycho Linguists, a group of language science students and faculty who every fall compete in a 200-mile relay across the state of Maryland.

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I suspect that it was shortly after I started graduate school. My first LSA Annual Meeting was held in a very snowy Boston in January 1994. I gave a talk about phonology. It didn’t go especially well.

Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

In various ways. I’ve been to most of the annual meetings in the past 20 years. I taught at the summer institutes in 2005 (MIT), 2011 (Colorado) and 2015 (Chicago). I’ve published a couple of papers in Language. I recently did a term on the Executive Committee, and I continue to be involved in a few projects that grew out of that, such as the 5 Minute Linguist event started at the 2017 annual meeting in Austin.

Q: What are you currently researching?

For the past 25 years I’ve always been interested in connecting high level linguistic models with lower level cognitive and neural models. But that broad goal has led our research team in lots of different directions, with many languages and tools as our playground. I am lucky to have worked with an amazing group of students over the years. Their talents and interests have greatly shaped the direction of the research. I don't tire of telling my students that we never learn anything when we’re right, and we learn the most when we’re wrong. Fortunately, we’ve been wrong a lot. We typically proceed by taking phenomena that look surprising or even embarrassing for our current theories, and then we poke at them until we understand them better. That was how we came to spend years working on linguistic illusions, prediction mechanisms, and the processing of verb-final languages like Japanese. Recently we’ve been digging into the relation between speaking, understanding, and grammar. We’ve been looking more closely at real-time semantic processes. And we’ve been working on linking accounts of linguistic prediction to things that we already know about linguistic memory access. 

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

It’s as much of an opportunity as a challenge. The opportunity is that linguistics can play a central role in an integrated science of language, connecting different basic and applied fields, and greatly raising the profile of language, in academia and in society. The challenge is overcoming long-standing skepticism and alienation between fields. I’ve spent much of the past 15 years working on building a broad language science community at the University of Maryland. Our grassroots effort was institutionalized in 2013 as the Maryland Language Science Center, an umbrella unit for language scientists in 17 units, from special education to electrical engineering. It has been an incredibly rewarding process, and we’re doing so many things now that I couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.

Q: What else are you currently working on beyond your own research?

My work with LSC allows me to learn about so many interesting areas that are new to me. I’m excited to be involved in the planning for Planet Word, a new museum of language that is due to open in late 2019. The museum has secured a fantastic location in the historic Franklin School in downtown Washington DC, and it presents a great opportunity for linguistics and language science to be more visible. Ann Friedman’s vision for the museum is to get lots more people excited about language, and that’s something that we can all get behind. Also in the area of public engagement, our Langscape web portal is allowing us to share linguists’ expertise on language diversity with diverse audiences in academia, government, and the public. It’s really neat to see jaws drop when you zoom in on the map and show the scope of language diversity in some areas of the world. That opens the door for conversations about all the other things that we need to know about languages.

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

It’s never too soon to think carefully about what you want to do with your life, to take action, and to ask your mentors to help you with this. We’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of our current NSF training grant. Today’s PhD graduates follow diverse career pathways, and most PhD training doesn’t prepare you for that. But even academic careers have changed a lot, too. We could prepare students better for the many different demands that will be placed upon them in their professional lives. We also need to embrace the idea that PhDs can be successful in many ways, without needing to be clones of their mentors. PhD programs shouldn’t be preparing 1960s professors. They should be preparing people to be intellectual leaders in advanced societies. Do you think that Angela Merkel’s doctorate in chemistry was a wasted education? 

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

The summer institute and the annual meeting. The institute is a unique asset to the field, creating wonderful opportunities for people to build connections in a way that’s not possible in the span of a regular academic conference. The annual meeting is the one event that brings the entire field together, and that offers much more than the standard menu of research presentations. When I ran for election to the EC I wrote that the most important thing for the LSA was to strengthen and integrate its core activities, and it’s very encouraging to see that this is really happening now.