Language against the odds: plenary lecture at the 5th Newcastle postgraduate conference in linguistics

Date: 23 March, 2010
Location: Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne
Event type: Conference

Location map | Event report

Professor Neil Smith (UCL) will be the keynote speaker and give a one hour plenary lecture (17:15-18:15) as part of the 5th Newcastle postgraduate conference in linguistics, held at Newcastle University. The lecture will consider the autistic savant Christopher, who displays remarkable talent in foreign languages despite considerable limitations in other areas of life. Christopher's case challenges the fundamental assumptions of most foreign language pedagogy about the links between foreign language learning and general intelligence, social interaction and motivation. Professor Smith will argue for the significance of Christopher's case for our understanding of the complex phenomenon of language acquisition.

This lecture is part of a one-day conference where postgraduate students in all areas of theoretical and applied linguistics will present their work. There will also be a plenary lecture from Professor Karen Corrigan of Newcastle University.

This event is sponsored by the Subject Centre's guest speaker fund. For further information please see the Newcastle University website.

Event reports

Language against the odds: plenary lecture at the 5th Newcastle postgraduate conference in linguistics

by Jo Lumley

On Tuesday 23rd March 2010, Professor Neil Smith of University College London gave a one hour lecture (17:15–18:15) at Newcastle University entitled “Language against the odds: Cognitive implications of the case of a polyglot savant”. He was invited to speak as part The 5th Newcastle Postgraduate Conference in Linguistics, and this invitation was made possible by the generous support of the Guest Speaker Fund of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. The 5th Newcastle Postgraduate Conference in Linguistics is an annual event run by postgraduate students at Newcastle University which invites presentations on all areas of linguistics by postgraduate students.

Professor Smith is a respected and well-known figure in linguistics who has worked on a wide variety of topics including linguistic theory, syntax, phonology and language acquisition. The lecture he gave was an overview of one major strand of his research, which looks at the fascinating case of the savant Christopher, an autistic man who cannot master noughts and crosses, and yet possesses a remarkable talent for foreign languages. The lecture spanned a range of topics in language acquisition, including the acquisition of syntax and the structure of memory, as well as the relation of linguistic knowledge to general cognition. This was illustrated by Christopher’s acquisition of a large number of spoken languages, as well as British Sign Language, and an artificial language, Epun, specially designed to test the limits of what Christopher could acquire. Foreign language teachers and learners often assume that language learning is intimately connected to intelligence, social interaction and motivation. Christopher’s case, however, provides a fascinating counter-example, and this lecture was therefore of great interest to a wide audience.

As part of The 5th Newcastle Postgraduate Conference in Linguistics, the event was advertised by e-mail to UK university departments of linguistics and other related disciplines, as well as online through the internationally-consulted Linguist List as well as the Newcastle University conference website. We estimate that the lecture was attended by around 110 people, including staff and postgraduate students from three departments of Newcastle University (Schools of Modern Languages; English Literature, Language and Linguistics; Education, Communication and Language Sciences) and a large number of postgraduate students from a range of UK and other European institutions, including York University, Cambridge University, University of Nottingham, University College Dublin and Ghent University. Feedback forms indicate that attendees were very satisfied with the event, and we feel that the presence of Professor Smith made a considerable contribution to the success of the event as a whole.