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Interview: Anne Cutler talks about other people

Anne Cutler

Date: 24 August 2018

Anne Cutler may be a heavyweight on the international psycholinguistics scene, but the former director of the Max Planck Institute and the first female winner of the Spinoza Prize doesn’t enjoy singing her own praises. She much prefers to talk about the people she’s worked with, language, or women in academia. 

Anne Cutler (73) still spends a few months a year in Nijmegen, despite having moved to her native Australia five years ago. ‘I still have an apartment here. Every summer I attend some conferences, like the LabPhon16 in Lisbon. If I had to do that from Australia, I’d be spending half a day on the plane each time.’ Down Under she lives on the eighth floor, with a view of Sydney Harbour. ‘And more than one hundred restaurants within walking distance. A complete change of scene from Nijmegen.’

Spinoza Prize

In a room at the Max Planck Institute, which she headed until 2013, Cutler explains in perfect Dutch that she continues to do research in Nijmegen. ‘Although not as much as I used to. When I left, I still had PhD candidates here, but those projects are completed now. I’m still involved in a PhD project in Maastricht, though, as a secondary supervisor.’ Her own research achievements lie in the field of language processing, she explains. ‘I did a number of studies on differences in how the brain functions in different language areas. An English-speaking brain processes language differently from a French brain, and this starts before birth. Your brain is trained, as it were, for a specific language, which is why it’s easier to learn some foreign languages than others. For example, Dutch people find it relatively easy to learn certain aspects of Arabic, like stress and rhythm. Their brains find Arabic easier to process in this respect than other languages.’

‘It was time we found out how the brain learns to recognise words’

When Cutler exchanged Nijmegen for a job at the Sydney MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, she left behind an impressive legacy. Director of the Max Planck Institute for twenty years and the first woman ever to win the Spinoza Prize in 1999, she was also the brain behind the BabyLab. The first of its kind in the Netherlands and the first in the world to measure the brain signals involved in language processing in the first year of life. To set up the lab, Cutler used her Spinoza funds. ‘As I look around the BabyLab today, I continue to be amazed by the fantastic discoveries that were made here. For example, my PhD student Caroline Junge discovered that the sooner a child can distinguish words in continuous speech, the greater their vocabulary is a few years later’, says Cutler.

‘It was a time of breakthroughs in the field of language processing. And it was about time we found out how the brain learns to recognise words.’ According to Cutler, she was also driven by the wish to create room for talented researchers. ‘Like Daniel Swingley, who led the BabyLab between 1999 and 2003. He’s now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And Elizabeth Johnson, now a professor at the University of Toronto, led the lab from 2003 to 2007. These are the real leaders in the field.’

Longitudinal study

Throughout our interview, Cutler keeps mentioning other people. From time to time she walks over to her bookcase to check the spelling of a name. ‘I share anecdotes, mostly about the people who influenced my career and those I was able to help’, she says. ‘I think this is so incredibly valuable.’ She mentions the example of a student assistant from her research group. ‘I thought she was very good and I wanted her to do a PhD, but she wasn’t interested. She was still very much in the process of figuring out what to do in life. Her father was a dentist, and she graduated in computer science. In the end, she met an Australian and came to ask me whether she could do a PhD after all, but in Australia. She’s completed her PhD by now.’

In Australia, Cutler continues to work as hard as ever. ‘In the Netherlands, I’m retired, but in Australia I don’t have to be.’ She recently launched a large-scale project, The Dynamics of Language, which brings together four Australian universities. For this project, the group was awarded a Centre of Excellence grant from the Australian government. ‘These days such grants are rarely awarded to humanities projects, let alone projects on language. Our project studies language processing, documentation, acquisition, and evolution. I really wanted to make this happen.’

The Centre of Excellence project spans seven years. ‘It has allowed my colleague Evan Kidd, who’s involved in the project, to finally set up a longitudinal study on the factors that influence language proficiency. It was his dream, and this has made it possible.’ The test subjects may grow up in Australia, but the data analysis and interpretation takes place far away: at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen.

The same mistakes

Her love of language is partially genetic, says Cutler. ‘Findings in the literature seem to indicate that it’s possible. People with keen hearing are good at distinguishing sounds in foreign languages. This may be at the root of it.’ Her grandfather was a radio engineer, and his sister, Cutler’s great-aunt, a pianist. ‘She was the first Australian woman to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in London. I’m really proud of her. Both she and my grandfather had very keen hearing. At age 92, my great-aunt regularly asked people not to shout.’ Cutler’s love of spoken language is her personal version of their musical and radio skills, she says.

‘This research field was created at the perfect time for me’

Another reason language has played such an important role in Cutler’s life is the background of her language teachers. ‘What people may not remember is that in the 1950s all French and German teachers in Australia were war refugees. There was no work for them in their own specialisations, but they could always teach people their mother tongue’, she explains. ‘These were incredibly interesting people; they had the courage to go far away and start a completely new life. My German teacher had completed her PhD in Vienna, and I never even got to ask her what it was about! And my French teacher was involved in the Belgian resistance and had walked all the way to Switzerland.’

Her own career also began with teaching German at university. ‘But I got tired of it after a few years. Watching the same mistakes being made year after year, only by different students. So I asked Ken Forster, who worked at the university, whether he would supervise my PhD. He refused. He wanted me to go to America, where there was a lot of attention for the brand-new discipline of psycholinguistics. He himself was one of the first Australians to work in this field. In the end I followed his advice and only returned to Australia forty years later. This research field was created at the perfect time for me.’

Bone-lazy

When Cutler won the Spinoza Prize in 1999, together with others such as Ronald Plasterk, she repeatedly expressed criticism of the difference between men and women in academia. In 2012, she added in an interview with Vox: ‘I thought everything was organised perfectly in the Netherlands. At least that’s the image other countries often have of the Netherlands. I was truly surprised [when I arrived here] to find so few female researchers.’

This is slowly changing, she says. ‘Not fast enough, but that’s true of other places too. Still, in Australia, the percentage of women in academia is slightly higher than here. We humans are really bone-lazy and we tend to stick to what we know’, she says. ‘Also, it’s very natural to think statistically: you may have met 120 professors in your life, and 103 of them were men. After that, whenever you hear the word ‘professor’, you’ll automatically assume it refers to a man.’

‘In academia, you never get anything just because you are a woman’

The only way to solve this problem, says Cutler, is to introduce a quota. ‘And yes, this may mean that in some equal suitability cases, the man will be disadvantaged. But over the years, millions of women were disadvantaged because they were women!’ She must have suffered from this herself, she says. ‘Although you can never know for sure in any given situation. I live in blissful ignorance of all my missed opportunities.’ She adds: ‘One argument women sometimes use against introducing a quota is ‘I don’t want to get this job just because I’m a woman’. But it’s not like they just got dragged off the street: they have the right CV, the right qualifications. I get so angry about this sometimes. In academia, you never get anything just because you’re a woman.’

The Centre of Excellence project Cutler is currently working on in Australia will run for at least another four years, and Cutler is not planning to quit her language research at the MARCS Institute any time soon either. But she doesn’t know what the future will bring. ‘What I do know is that researchers are always interested in learning new things, whether they are 40 or 70. There’s still so much we don’t know about how babies learn language and this continues to fascinate me’, she says. ‘I just don’t sit on committees or attend meetings anymore, so I don’t have to listen to all those people who can’t get enough of the sound of their own voice. I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime.’

This article first appeared in Vox, the independent magazine of Radbout University in The Netherlands, and is re-published here with permission.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

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