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A baby’s first word is a hugely important milestone, but words are nothing without the meaning we assign to them. The study of linguistic meaning is central to the work of Myrto Grigoroglou, an assistant professor of psycholinguistics in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Linguistics and the Cognitive Science program at University College.
“Meaning” can mean many different things. Semantics describes the literal meaning of words within sentences: for example, the request “can you pass the salt?” refers to one’ ability to pass the salt. Pragmatics describes how words are used in context: the person asking you to pass the salt knows you can do it, but is framing their request this way to be polite.
Grigoroglou studies meaning at the most granular level, examining the way tiny words like “in” or “on” might be used and interpreted by the preschool children she studies.
“For these words, they need to have developed spatial concepts: containment for ‘in,’support for ‘on.’ If this psychological reasoning isn’t in place, children can’t grasp meaning,” she says. “This is really the core of psycholinguistics: it’s a way to understand the mind.”
Grigoroglou has also examined how children use language to describe events, showing how kindergarten students adjust narratives to suit their listeners. Even before they start school, her young subjects have rich vocabularies and have already absorbed a wealth of rules. They can nimbly use words to follow instructions, exchange information, cajole parents and convince playmates.
Like many other linguistics experts, Grigoroglou believes they can do all of this because language is innate to humans. “There are studies showing that language learning happens in utero; we’re not born a blank slate,” she says. Her work follows in the tradition of linguist Noam Chomsky, who over 50 years ago proposed the still hotly-debated idea of a Universal Grammar, which states that all of the world’s languages — there are between 5,000 and 6,000 — share a common structure which is built into our brain circuitry.
Language is a uniquely human characteristic. We’re truly studying the essence of what it is to be human.
A true polyglot, Grigoroglou has been learning languages since early childhood. In addition to English, French, Spanish and her native Greek, she also studied Latin and Ancient Greek in high school. It was while completing a degree in media and communication at the University of Athens that she was first attracted to the rigor of linguistic analysis. “My master’s degree was essentially on philosophy of language, so switching to linguistics was not a big stretch,” she says.
Much of Grigoroglou’s work normally takes place in the laboratory, where she conducts developmental research. Naturally, the pandemic has changed the way she operates. “For a new faculty member like me, who is trying to set up an experimental lab, things have been particularly challenging,” she says.
When the pandemic started, Grigoroglou was still completing postdoctoral work at OISE’s Language and Learning Lab. There, she switched her focus to online data collection, and spearheaded the lab’s transition to testing children online — a process she says had “a lot of steps and moving parts.” These included figuring out how to amend ethics protocols, recruit subjects online, store data and design studies that would work online. So far the venture has been successful; indeed, she says, it has been “invaluable for me in the process of setting up my own lab.”
As part of her experimental work, Grigoroglou is continuing her research into children’s use of spatial and logical language, as well as their use of multimodal communication — i.e., how they incorporate speech with gesture to convey thoughts.
It’s all part of the quest she shares with other experts in psycholinguistics: to uncover not only the myriad rules that govern all of the world’s languages, but to plumb the very depths of the human mind. “Language,” she says, “is a uniquely human characteristic. We’re truly studying the essence of what it is to be human.”