This summer I worked at the Cultural Evolution of Language Lab under the guidance of Dr. Gareth Roberts. While I was initially unsure if research was the correct path for me, my time in the lab allowed me to explore a new opportunity in both my academic and creative passions.
For the majority of my time in the lab, I worked on a student-led project exploring the mental lexicon - a speakers’ knowledge of words and what they mean within the mind. Specifically, my partner Madeleine McGrath and I sought to determine if labeling a concept changes the way it is stored in memory. To this end, we created a set of novel objects as our base stimuli and paired them with words in our own constructed “alien language”. We examined how participants would categorize and group these new words and objects across three mirrored conditions. In the first experiment, the object-based condition, participants are exposed only to the objects before spatially grouping the objects. In the second, the label-based condition, participants view the objects, with their respective labels, and then proceed to organize the words. In the final condition, the overlap condition, participants learn the images with their labels, but then proceed to organize the objects only. We are interested in observing which features and/or relationships determine the organizations these concepts in the mind, and when paired with a label, within the mental lexicon. We also want to measure in what capacity the organization strategies for these two systems, conceptual and lexical, overlap, if at all.
In addition to my own project, I contributed to the work of other PURM students in the lab and ran trials I finally got to put my limited java skills to use, writing code to generate a list of a words in an alien language based on letter and syllable frequencies.
I sincerely enjoyed being able to apply my abstract knowledge of linguistic theory to the real world. Learning about the research process in a hands-on environment was educational and inspiring. I am excited to continue with my project into the fall semester, and I hope to pursue research throughout my time at Penn.