News | 13 February 2013

UCSC Linguistics Professors Receive $300,000 NSF Grant


Matt Wagers and Sandra Chung

UCSC humanities professors Matthew Wagers (left) and) Sandra Chung (center) will collaborate on their project to investigate language comprehension in the Mariana Islands with Manuel F. Borja (right), an author and educator who lives in Saipan.

UCSC humanities professors Sandra Chung and Matthew Wagers have been awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate language comprehension in the Mariana Islands.

The project will focus on the study of Chamorro, an Austronesian language of Micronesia, spoken by 45,000 people in the Mariana Islands, which are part of the U.S. and its possessions.

The project for the 2013 NSF grant is intended to broaden the empirical base of research on language comprehension.

The UCSC professors will undertake experimental studies that build on special linguistic features of Chamorro to uncover how Chamorro speakers comprehend their language in real time. They will explore how speakers make predictions as they hear a sentence about how the sentence will continue.

The study of language comprehension has the potential to shed light on how the mind integrates general knowledge with past experiences to deal with new situations.

Past studies of language comprehension have been limited to major world languages (English, other European languages, Chinese, Japanese) and college-age students. However, this markedly underrepresents the diversity of the world’s languages and populations, and could potentially lead to scientific conclusions that are distorted or incomplete.

Wagers, an assistant professor of linguistics, is the project’s Principal Investigator. He specializes in the study of psycholinguistics and language comprehension, with a focus on the way sentence structure is stored or accessed in memory. He joined the UCSC faculty in 2008.

Chung, professor of linguistics, is Co-Principal Investigator, and has done linguistic research on Chamorro since 1976. She specializes in syntax, or the study of sentence structure. She was elected as president of the Linguistic Society of America in 2011–the major professional society in the United States that is dedicated to the scientific study of language. She joined the UCSC faculty in 1986.

Wagers and Chung are joined by their collaborator Manuel F. Borja, a Chamorro author and educator who lives in Saipan.

Chung previously received an NSF grant in 2008 for a collaborative project to help preserve the Chamorro language.

That project included writing a new reference grammar of the language, and working on a Chamorro-English dictionary. The goal was to provide a highly detailed, accessible record of the Chamorro language for future generations.

The start-date of the three-year grant is April 1.
Article written by Scott Rappaport.