Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Institute headquarters at Nijmegen, the Netherlands
Formation 1980 (1980)
Type Scientific institute
Purpose Research in psycholinguistics
Headquarters Nijmegen, Gelderland, the Netherlands
Parent organization
Max Planck Society
Website (English)

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (German: Max-Planck-Institut für Psycholinguistik; Dutch: Max Planck Instituut voor Psycholinguïstiek) is a research institute situated on the campus of Radboud University Nijmegen located in Nijmegen, Gelderland, the Netherlands. Founded in 1980, it is the only institution in the world entirely dedicated to psycholinguistics,[1] and is also one of only three among a total of 90 within the Max Planck Society to be located outside Germany. The Nijmegen-based institute currently occupies 5th position in the Ranking Web of World Research Centers among all Max Planck institutes (5th by size, 1st by visibility).[2] It currently employs about 135 people.


The institute specializes in language comprehension, language production, language acquisition, language and genetics, and the relation between language and cognition. Its mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how human minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how to learn languages of quite different types.[3] The MPI for Psycholinguistics is a globally recognized center of linguistics and presents with its international archive of endangered languages a significant contribution to the preservation of the common heritage of mankind. This archive is sponsored since 2000 by the Volkswagen Foundation and offers on the internet about 50 projects.


The MPI for Psycholinguistics has six primary organizational units:[4]

Language and Cognition

The Language and Cognition Department, headed by Stephen C. Levinson, investigates the relationship between language, culture and general cognition, making use of the "natural laboratory" of language variation. In this way, the department brings the perspective of language diversity to bear on a range of central problems in the language sciences. It maintains over a dozen field sites around the world, where languages are described (often for the first time), field experiments conducted and extended corpora of natural language usage collected. In addition, the department is characterized by a diversity of methods, ranging from linguistic analysis and ethnography to developmental perspectives, from psycholinguistic experimentation to conversation analysis, from corpus statistics to brain imaging, and from phylogenetics to linguistic data mining.[5]

Language and Genetics

Established in October 2010, the Language and Genetics Department is headed by Simon E. Fisher. The department takes advantage of the latest innovations in molecular methods to discover how the human genome helps to build a language-ready brain. It aims to uncover the DNA variations which ultimately affect different facets of human communicative abilities, not only in children with language-related disorders but also in the general population. Crucially our work attempts to bridge the gaps between genes, brains, speech and language, by integrating molecular findings with data from other levels of analysis, including cell biology, experimental psychology and neuroimaging. In addition, it hopes to trace the evolutionary history and worldwide diversity of key genes, which may shed new light on language origins.[6]

Language Comprehension

The Language Comprehension Department, headed by Anne Cutler, undertakes empirical investigation and computational modeling of the understanding of spoken language. Until 2009, the work within the department was largely divided between two research projects: decoding continuous speech and phonological learning for speech perception. From 2009 onwards, most of the work of the department goes into the project called Mechanisms and Representations in Comprehending Speech. This project focuses on core theoretical issues in speech comprehension such as on how episodic memories - such as hearing someone speak in an unfamiliar dialect - influence the speech perception system, or how is prior knowledge about one's language (phonotactic probabilities, lexical knowledge, frequent versus infrequent word combinations) used during perception.[7]

Language Acquisition

While still under reorganization, the Language Acquisition Department until September 2012 investigated processes of language acquisition and use in a broad perspective. The department combined attention to both first and second languages, researching production as well as comprehension of speakers of different ages and cultures, and the developmental relationship between language and cognition. The focus was on morpho-syntax, semantics and discourse structure. Headed by Wolfgang Klein, Language Acquisition previously launched three institute projects, namely, Information Structure in Language Acquisition, Categories in Language and Cognition and Multimodal Interaction.[8] The Language Acquisition Department has reopened in 2016 heading by Caroline Rowland.

Neurobiology of Language

The Neurobiology of Language Department, headed by Peter Hagoort, focuses on the study of language production, language comprehension, and language acquisition from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. This includes using neuroimaging, behavioral and virtual reality techniques to investigate the language system and its neural underpinnings. Research facilities at the Max Planck Institute include a high-density electroencephalography (EEG) lab, a virtual reality laboratory and several behavioral laboratories. Having a part of the department stationed at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, it also has access to a whole-head 275 channel MEG system, MRI-scanners at 1.5, 3 and 7 Tesla, a TMS-lab, and several additional EEG laboratories.[9]

Psychology of Language

The Psychology of Language Department, headed by Antje S. Meyer, identifies characteristics of the cognitive system that determine behavior in a broad range of linguistic tasks and the relationships between language production, comprehension, and learning via speaking, listening and cognition. The department also understands variability in adult language production and comprehension. Using various approaches, the Psychology of Language utilizes a combination of experimental and correlational work and inclusion of diverse samples of participants. With such methods, it has close links to the Language and Genetics and Neurobiology of Language departments.[10]

Independent Research Groups

Communication before Language

This MPI research group, headed by Daniel Haun, investigates the social and cognitive foundations of human communication in infancy specifically on infants' developing social cognition and social motivation in relation to their emerging prelinguistic communication within social and cultural contexts. Their work is motivated by the idea that there is a psychological basis of human communication that develops ontogenetically prior to language and can be first expressed in gestures.[11]

Evolutionary Processes in Language and Culture

Started in 2009, the research group investigates language diversity and change as part of an integrated cultural evolutionary system. Headed by Michael Dunn, the group takes a modern evolutionary perspective, using computational tools from genetics and biology, and integrating probabilistic, quantified approaches to phylogenetics with rigorous tests of different models of the interaction between elements of language, contact and geography, and cultural variation.[12]

Syntax, Typology and Information Structure

The research group, headed by Robert D. Van Valin, Jr., tries to determine the role of information structure in explaining cross-linguistic differences in grammatical systems out of the idea that the interaction of pragmatics and grammar happens on several levels and differs from language to language. Another major task of the group is to investigate and re-evaluate the status of the information structure primitives (topic, focus, contrast, etc.) as cross-linguistically valid categories. To achieve this, the members of the group combine extensive corpus analysis of the data in their respective languages with production experiments; all findings are further cross-checked through standard information structure tests (question-answer pairs, aboutness tests, association with focus sensitive items).[13]


  1. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Unique in the world". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  2. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas. "Max Planck Institutes". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  3. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Home". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  4. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Research departments and research groups". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  5. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Language and cognition". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  6. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Language and genetics". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  7. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Language comprehension". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  8. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Language acquisition". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  9. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Neurobiology of language - Research mission". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  10. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Psychology of language - Home". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  11. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Communication before language - Home". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  12. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Evolutionary processes in language and culture - Home". Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  13. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Syntax, Typology, and Information Structure - Home". Retrieved April 23, 2014.

Coordinates: 51°49′04.53″N 5°51′25.65″E / 51.8179250°N 5.8571250°E / 51.8179250; 5.8571250

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