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Seminar: Interactional foundations of language - The Interaction Engine hypothesis. 25 February

Australian National University, Evolution, SYNAPSE

Date: 16 January 2019

Date: 1-3pm, Monday 25 February 2019

Venue: McDonald Room, Menzies Library, McDonald Rd, The Australian National University. 

Speaker: Professor Stephen C Levinson, Director (Emeritus), Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (1994-2017)


Humans have a special communication and interaction ability that makes language possible, rather than the other way around. The evidence for this can be found at many levels:

  1. Languages are too diverse to be explained by innate grammar: there have to be pre-linguistic mechanisms and motivations that form the basis for acquiring language.
  2. Communication is possible without language, as shown e.g. by cross-cultural communication without shared language, or by ‘home sign’ systems.
  3. In contrast to languages, language usage is universal – there are strikingly similar patterns across cultures.
  4. These usage patterns show up early in ontogenesis, suggesting an ethological basis.
  5. Precursors for some of these patterns can be seen in phylogeny, suggesting evolved native capacities.
  6. Interactional and linguistic abilities can doubly dissociate, with preserved linguistic abilities and impaired interactional ones, and vice-versa.

The ‘interaction engine’ can be thought of as a package of these communication and interaction abilities, which together provide an infrastructure that makes language possible to learn and effective to use.


Steven LevinsonStephen C Levinson is a Professor of Comparative Linguistics at the Radboud University Nijmegen, a Research Fellow at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and the former Director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (1994-2017), of which he was also Managing Director (1998-2001, 2007-2008).


His research focusses on language diversity and its implications for theories of human cognition. Language is the only animal communication system that differs radically in form and meaning across social groups of the same species, a fact that has been neglected in the cognitive sciences. Professor Levinson's work attempts both to grasp what this diversity is all about, and to exploit it as a way of discovering the role that language plays in our everyday cognition. He was the recipient of an ERC Advanced Grant, which focussed on the interactional foundations for language. The project began in June 2011 and ended in September 2016. For more details about the project, please visit the INTERACT Project homepage.

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