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Get to know Roberta D'Alessandro and discover the architecture of language

How does language work and how do we learn a language? The more we know about language, the better we can understand how people interpret the world in words. Roberta D'Alessandro carries out research on the architecture of language. There is now a dossier about her work online.

The architecture of language

Language is a necessity of life. Words and sentences allow us to describe the world around us, communicate with others and express our feelings. When we learn a language, we learn its rules, but we apply much of the grammar automatically. We often ‘feel’ whether a sentence is correct, without being aware of any rules that apply. Why is this? How do people learn to form sentences? How do our brains accept grammar? Roberta D’Alessandro, Professor of Italian Language and Culture, researches this ‘architecture’ of language. She studies languages in Southern Italy and compares them with languages that appear to have a similar grammar. Her work gives us a better understanding of language and how we learn it.

Grammatical source code

Linguists recently made a surprising discovery: languages in the world may differ, but only to a certain extent. There appear to be only a limited number of grammatical forms – operating systems – that our brains will accept. There also seem to be grammatical similarities between languages that do not belong a single language family, for example, Southern Italian languages, Basque, Georgian, Hindi and even the Mayan language. ‘These similarities cannot be coincidental: the languages must have the same basic grammatical “source code”. This makes it interesting to study and compare these types of language. In the long run, I hope to discover what all languages in the world have in common and to distil the general rules of grammar.’

Documenting sources

The Southern Italian languages that Roberta D’Alessandro studies are little documented. One of her priorities is to collect and document all available sources about these languages before they die out. ‘With the aid of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), we have set up a pilot crowdsourcing project. Here we ask young Italians from the region to use an audio app to record their parents or grandparents speaking their regional language for ten minutes. They can then send these audio files to a central site. Ten minutes of material is enough to give us a good idea of a language.’ This project is just one example of the many activities in which D'Alessandro is involved.

Answering fundamental questions

In her work, Roberta D’Alessandro seeks answers to fundamental questions about how we understand and learn language. This knowledge gives us greater understanding of humankind and has many practical applications. D’Alessandro also uses different methods to share her knowledge and get across the message of how much society can learn from linguists.

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