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McMaster University and Dr. Victor Kuperman, Canada Research Chair in Psycholinguistics, will play a significant role in a novel national training partnership called the Words in the World Project. The partnership’s goal is to train approximately 500 students, postdoctoral fellows, young researchers and others in the latest techniques of investigating how people process and represent words. The Canadian government’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) has supported the initiative with a 2016 Partnership Grant of almost $2.5 million, the highest amount awarded for a SSHRC project.

Linguistics researchers usually work in a laboratory, using high-tech equipment – such as EEG recordings of electrical activity in the brain and eye trackers that record how a person’s eyes move during reading – to capture language activity in the brain. This exciting project will make use of the most up-to-date technologies to move that work outside of the laboratory.

For example, a student could use a pen equipped with a pin-point laser camera and a real-time millisecond clock to take notes at a seminar or lecture. The camera and clock measure the speed of the student’s writing and the length of pauses between words, giving researchers an idea of how quickly the brain processes the spoken words and in turn providing hints on how to best convey verbal information to match that processing.

“We’re at a real juncture,” says Gary Libben, professor in Brock’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Department of Psychology. “We have lots of knowledge about how people behave in a laboratory environment, but actually very little knowledge about cognitive processes during language use in more natural settings.”

Words in the World will take conventional lab-based research training a step further through bringing cutting-edge techniques, specialized equipment, and theoretical knowledge into a real world setting so that the next generation of researchers can study language use in ways that will directly translate into knowledge of relevance to our community partners.

“We are hoping to develop techniques and knowledge that can help older people with word finding challenges, expand vocabulary skills in a first or second language, help business owners meet the demands of provincial accessibility laws as they relate to language disabilities, and raise literacy rates in children and adults,” Libben says. “We have the knowledge to make the breakthroughs that will change the lives of people in our communities. The Words in the World project will bring together communities, researchers, and trainees in a new way in order to achieve those breakthroughs.”

Led by Brock University, researchers at McMaster and other universities across Canada will harness the expertise of collaborators from around the world and the practical knowledge of community partners to provide innovative training to the next generation of our most promising researchers.