Philosophical Society of Washington

The Complexity of Language

How It Is Learned and How It Changes

David Lightfoot
National Science Foundation

2224th Meeting Abstract
Friday, September 7, 2007 at 8:15 PM


David W. Lightfoot

A person’s language capacity is an immensely complex system. This lecture will consider how that complexity can actually be acquired by developing children and what implications that has for how languages change over time. Languages change sometimes through big, structural shifts, “catastrophes,” and we can see why.

About the Author:

David W. Lightfoot heads NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE). This Directorate comprises three divisions: Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Social and Economic Sciences, and Science Resources Statistics. SBE includes fields such as anthropology, psychology, cognitive studies, political science, linguistics, risk management and economics.

Previously he had served as Dean of the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University and a professor in its Department of Linguistics. In his capacity as Dean at Georgetown University, he promoted research collaborations in cognition and neurosciences, population health, bioinformatics, statistics and computing.

Before coming to Georgetown in 2001, he had established a new Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland and chaired it for 12 years. Previously he held academic positions at the University of Michigan, McGill University and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. He has held numerous visiting appointments in Europe and South America.

He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of London, King’s College, and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan. He has been a Fulbright Scholar and has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. He has authored 10 books and several dozen scholarly papers on the origin, acquisition, development and historical evolution of language.

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