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SEMEXP Report Summary

Project ID: 313610
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: France

Mid-Term Report Summary - SEMEXP (Psycho-semantics: new data for formal semantics models, stronger frameworks for experimental studies)

In the last decades, formal semantics has led to precise models for one of the most common and highest-level functions in human cognition: intuitions adults spontaneously access about meaning in their natural language. The project developed fine-grained psycholinguistic methods to test the sophisticated consequences of these formal and abstract models, extending their empirical footing not only to intuitions about meanings but also to processing aspects (how difficult is it to converge on a particular intuition?) and acquisition (what path do children follow before they reach adult-like behavior?). A satisfying match between models and data is one where higher costs and later age of acquisition are found for semantic processes involving what can be identified as more complex computations. The results so far either validate the original formal models, down to very abstract pieces of these models which thought some were artifact of the formalization, or they show how the models must be adjusted to reach empirical adequacy of a more ambitious, more cognitive type.

The project thus develops methods to document new aspects of the semantic competence. This methodological aspect connects to a more and more pervasive discussion in linguistics and psychology. In this debate, some defend that simple and traditional tools such as introspection (researchers asking themselves whether a given utterance in their native language has a possible interpretation) are just as reliable as other methods and could be the most efficient way towards scientific progress, while others call for systematic inquiries relying on formal experimental work with quantitative measurements of naïve participants’ responses. The project revealed that fine-grained choices can make experimental work on various topics more or less efficient, and aims at developing the methods, which would, rationally, strike the right balance between cost of the method and expected scientific benefit.

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