Language and Cognition Laboratory

Contact Details

Language and Cognition Laboratory
Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences Research Department 
University College London
26 Bedford Way
United Kingdom

+44-(0)20-76795345 (phone)
+44-(0)20-7436 4276 (fax) 

For more information

please email:


Gabriella organises the "How the Body Shapes the Mind" event at the 2012 Annual British Science Festival in Aberdeen. Download the poster for more information.

EPS Workshop: What if the study of Language Started from Signed rather than Spoken Language? (January 2012) here


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Language and Cognition Laboratory

Our research concerns the biological and psychological mechanisms of meaningful communication (where communication is most often face-to-face and mutimodal or multichanneled). 

Our work is interdisciplinary and we use tools from cognitive psychology, psychophysics, cognitive neuroscience and computational linguistics. 

Our general views on how humans represent meaning and how language links to cognition can be found in:

  • Meteyard, L., Rodriguez, S., Bahrami, B., & Vigliocco, G. (2012). Coming of age: A review of embodiment and the neuroscience of semantics. Cortex, DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex2010.11.002.
  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P., Druks, J. & Cappa, S.F. (2011). Nouns and Verbs in the Brain? A review of behavioural, electrophysiological, neuropsychological and imaging studies. Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 35, 407-426.
  • Vigliocco, G., Meteyard, L., Andrews, M., & Kousta, S.-T. (2009). Toward a Theory of Semantic Representation. Language and Cognition 1, 219-247.
The Learning and Processing of Abstract Words and Concepts Probabilistic Models of Semantic Representation Language-specific effects on meaning representation Sentence Integration
The role of Iconicity in Language Learning, Processing and Evolution Nouns and Verbs in the Brain Lexical Retrieval during Production Computational Linguistics

Below, we briefly describe some more specific current and previous projects. 

The Learning and Processing of Abstract Words and Concepts

The ability to understand and use language referring to abstract entities, events, and qualities is arguably a uniquely human faculty. In our research we have shown that abstract words and concepts are grounded in our emotions, in contrast to the dominant view that sees abstract concepts as depending primarily if not exclusively on our linguistic skills. Abstract concepts tend to have more affective associations than concrete concepts, and moreover, they engage rostral ACC, part of the affective system. These findings have led us to develop theoretical proposals concerning how we represent and process meaning according to which whereas concrete words and concepts would be grounded in our sensory-motor interactions with the environment; abstract concepts would be grounded in our emotional reactions. 

This work is carried out in collaboration with Bahador Bahrami (UCL), Courtenay Norbury (Royal Holloway) and Stefano Cappa (Vita-Salute University, Milan) and is currently supported by funding from ESRC and Nuffield

Watch Gabriella give a talk at a 2011 ESCOP/APS symposium "Where is embodiment going?" on abstract concepts here.

See also:

  • Kousta, S..-T., Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P., Andrews, M. & Del Campo, E. (2011). The representation of abstract words: Why emotion matters. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140, 14-34.

The role of Iconicity in Language Learning, Processing and Evolution

Roughly, iconicity can be defined as a non-arbitrary link between some (whatever) properties of concepts and some properties of the linguistic form. Iconicity is readily visible in sign languages and in our work (part of the activities carried out at the Deafness, Cognition and Language, DCAL, research centre), we have shown that deaf children learning British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language learn more iconic signs first; and that adults native signers process iconic signs more easily than less  iconic signs. We are now investigating whether we can observe parallel effects of iconicity in sign and spoken languages and whether iconicity also might play a role in language evolution. Here, our theoretical proposal is that iconicity emerges as a consequence of a fundamental constrain on human communication, namely the need for communication to be meaningful, hence to link linguistic form (in either spoken or signed languages) to our sensory-motor and affective experience. 

This work, in collaboration with Bencie Woll and Gary Morgan at DCAL is supported by the ESRC.

Watch Gabriella give a talk in Leiden in June 2012 on this topic here.

See also:

  • Thompson, R.L., Vinson, D.P, Woll, B. & Vigliocco, G. (in press). The road to language learning is iconic: evidence from British Sign Language. Psychological Science
  • Perniss, P., Thompson, R.L., Vigliocco, G. (2010). Iconicity as a general property of Language. Frontiers in Psychology.

Probabilistic Models of Semantic Representation

In addition to behavioural and imaging work, we use state-of-the-art tools from computational linguistics/machine learning. The models we develop are psychologically plausible and allow us to derive fine-grained predictions to be tested in experiments. Our main contribution here has been to show how combining statistical information derived from sensory-motor and affect experience to statistical information extracted from language gives us better predictions (to be further tested in behavioural, imaging, patient studies in multiple languages) that either types of information alone. 

This work has been carried out in collaboration with Mark Andrews (Nottingham-Trent University) and has been supported by the EU.

See also:

  • Andrews, M., Frank, S. & Vigliocco, G. (in press). Reconciling embodied and distributional accounts of meaning and language. Topics in Cognitive Science.
  • Andrews, M., Vigliocco, G. & Vinson, D.P. (2009). The role of attributional and distributional information in learning semantic representation. Psychological Review, 116, 463-498.

Nouns and Verbs in the Brain

All languages have different parts of speech, and most relevant here, all languages distinguish between nouns and verbs (albeit in different manners). This fact has been taken by some to indicate that grammatical class is one likely candidate for being part of a language organ, part of our genetic makeup. According to this view, grammatical class is behaviourally and neurally separable from semantic distinctions (and also from the manner in which it is realised in wordforms in languages). In contrast, some researchers adhering to a non-nativist view have argued that grammatical class is a property emergent from semantic distinctions (as well as language-specific differences in the wordform that correlate with grammatical class). Hence, grammatical class is not separable from meaning, either behaviourally or neurally. We have carried out cross-linguistic behavioural, electrophysiological, patient and imaging work to disentangle between these two views. Our results, summarised in Vigliocco et al (2011), strongly support a view in which nouns and verbs are not organisational principles of lexical knowledge in the brain. 

See also:

  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P., Druks, J. & Cappa, S.F. (2011). Nouns and Verbs in the Brain? A review of behavioural, electrophysiological, neuropsychological and imaging studies. Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 35, 407-426.
  • Barber, H., Kousta, S.-T., Otten, L. & Vigliocco, G. (2010). Event related potential to event related words. Brain Research, 1332, 65-74.
  • Siri, S., Tettamanti, M., Cappa, S. Della Rosa, P., Saccuman, C., Scifo, P. & Vigliocco, G. (2008). The neural substrate of naming events. Cerebral Cortex, 18, 171-177.

Language-specific effects on meaning representation

Speakers of different languages must attend to and encode different aspects of the world in order to use their language properly (Sapir, 1921; Slobin, 1996). A crucial question is whether differences in what is obligatorily expressed in a language (Jakobson, 1959) can affect thinking such that, for example, speakers of Italian tend to pay greater attention to gender differences (since gender is grammaticalised in the language) than English speakers (since gender is not a grammatical category in English). This question, concerning linguistic relativity (Sapir, 1921; Whorf, 1956), has been largely ignored in cognitive psychology in the past twenty years, but is regaining popularity because of greater awareness of cross-linguistic differences. In this project, we scrutinise this question by asking whether syntactic properties of words (i.e., features of words that determine their use in sentences) that differ across languages (Italian and English) affect speakers' mental representations of the corresponding objects and events.

See also:

  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P., Paganelli F. & Dworzynski, K. (2005). Grammatical gender effects on cognition: Implications for language learning and language use. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134, 501-520.

Lexical Retrieval during Production

A large body of evidence indicates that retrieving words for speaking involves first retrieving the meaning and then information concerning the sound-form. Until recently, although a number of models assumed that retrieving words for speaking also involves retrieving syntactic information, there was no clear evidence to support this claim. We provided evidence that syntactic information is lexically represented, and some preliminary evidence that syntactic information is available in production before phonological information.

  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P., Martin, R.C., & Garrett, M.F. (1999). Is "count" and "mass" information available when the noun is not? An investigation of tip of the tongue states and anomia. Journal of Memory and Language, 40, 534-558. [pdf]
  • Vinson, D.P., & Vigliocco, G. (1999). Can independence be observed in a dependent system? Brain and Language, 68, 118-126. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Antonini, T., & Garrett, M.F. (1997). Grammatical gender is on the tip of Italian tongues. Psychological Science, 8, 314-317.

Sentence Integration

Sentence integration is the process of integrating the stored linguistic information (meaning, sound and syntax) into sentences during sentence production The main question concerning sentence integration we have addressed is to what extent the encoding of a sentence at one level (e.g., syntactic) is encapsulated from information from other levels (e.g., conceptual and phonological information).

  • Vigliocco, G. & Hartsuiker, R.J. (2002). The interplay of meaning, sound & syntax in language production. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 442-472. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., & Franck, J. (2001). When sex hits syntax: Gender agreement in sentence production. Journal of Memory and Language, 45, 368-390. [pdf]
  • Franck, J., Vigliocco G., & Nicol, J.L. (2002). The role of syntactic tree structure and complexity in subject-verb agreement. Language and Cognitive Processes, 17, 371-404. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G. & Franck, J. (1999). When Sex and Syntax go hand in hand: Gender agreement in language production. Journal of Memory and Language, 40, 455-478. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., & Zilli, T. (1999). Syntactic accuracy in sentence production: Gender disagreement in Italian language impaired and unimpaired speakers. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 28, 623-648. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G. & Nicol, J. L. (1998). Separating hierarchical relations and word order in language production. Is proximity concord syntactic or linear? Cognition, 68, 13-29. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G, Butterworth, B & Garrett, M.F. (1996). Subject-Verb agreement in Spanish and English: Differences in the role of conceptual factors. Cognition, 61, 261-298. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Hartsuiker, R.J., Jarema, G., & Kolk, H.H.J. (1996). How many labels on the bottles? Notional concord in Dutch and French. Language and Cognitive Processes, 11, 407-421. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Butterworth, B. & Semenza, C. (1995). Computing Subject Verb agreement in speech: The role of semantic and morphological information. Journal of Memory and Language, 34, 186-215. [pdf]

Computational Linguistics

  •  Content forthcoming

Page last modified on 23 oct 12 10:53 by Carolyne S Megan