The most fundamental accomplishment of language is that it enables interlocutors to assemble rich, structured meanings (“situation models”) in each other’s minds. In our lab, we ask how the properties of a given situation model can be predicted from a linguistic structure, how its creation is accomplished in the brain, and how language processing differs between constructions. For example, there are syntactic differences between “Mary gave John a kiss” and “Mary kissed John”. These syntactic differences are reflected in the situation models that comprehenders form: For example, people infer different event durations and configuration of event participants, depending on which structure was encountered. There are also processing differences associated with understanding structures like “Mary gave John a kiss”, compared to syntactically equivalent structures like “Mary gave John a book”.
To achieve a better understanding of how a linguistic form maps to a situation model in the human mind, we study language comprehension and production in the lab and via the internet, using participants in experiments involving a wide variety of tasks and methods, and a multitude of languages.