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Iris Berent


Mailing Address:

125 NI (Nightingale Hall), Boston, MA 02115


  • Phonology

My research examines the nature of linguistic competence, its origins, and its interaction with reading ability. I seek to identify the constraints that shape the language system and determine the extent to which this system is specialized for the processing of linguistic information. I am particularly interested in two questions:

  1. Are people equipped with a grammar—a computational system that operates on linguistic variables (abstract categories such as noun and syllable) as opposed to specific instances (such as the noun dog and the syllable blif)?
  2. Does the grammar include universal constraints on language structure?

To assess the computational properties of the language system, I examine whether people can learn restrictions on linguistic variables, such as constraints on reduplication (e.g., AAB vs. ABB). My work seeks to identify the class of grammars that are learnable by humans. To this end, I examine whether speakers (adults, children, and infants) of diverse languages (English, Hebrew, Korean, Russian, and Spanish) possess universal grammatical constraints on structures that they have never heard before. I seek to identify such constraints, examine their sources—whether they reflect specific restrictions on language structure, or properties of nonlinguistic systems (e.g., audition or motor control)—and their modulation by linguistic experience. I assess these questions using numerous populations (typical hearing people, deaf individuals, and people with dyslexia) and methods (behavioral and various measures of brain responses). My work also explores the link between linguistic competence, reading ability, and disability.

Iris Berent in the news

How human brains do language: one system, two channels

Contrary to popular belief, language is not limited to speech. In a recent study published in the journal PNAS, Northeastern University Prof. Iris Berent reveals that people also apply the rules of their spoken language to sign language.

Take 5: What makes human language so special?

In the 52nd annual Robert D. Klein Lecture, psychology professor Iris Berent argued that human language is a product of a specialized biological system, that we are innately equipped with a language instinct.