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Research program

In my research I investigate how the human mind shapes language, and how language environment shapes the human mind.

 

I seek to better understand the developing human mind by closely examining the structure of language. My work explores the emergence of linguistic structure in one of the youngest languages known to science: Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL).  NSL was born in Managua about 35 years ago with the opening of the first school for deaf children. By examining and comparing the signing of different generations of signers today, we have the rare chance to watch the changes a new language undergoes as it is born. Additionally, I study the raw materials from which this new language was created: homesign. Homesign systems are gestural systems created by isolated deaf individuals to communicate with family and friends. 

I also seek to recreate the conditions of natural language emergence inside the laboratory. New languages like NSL are singularly informative in terms of understanding how new languages are born, but because they grow in the complex real world, it is difficult to assess the relative contributions of individual factors when it comes to building a language. By replicating these conditions in the lab, we gain experimental control over factors of interest. By looking both at natural language emergence in the world and simulated language emergence in the laboratory, we can better understand the creation of new language by human minds. 

In my newest research, I investigate child language learning in a wide range of early language environments. I seek to better understand when typical language learning parallels language emergence, and when it does not. 

I also study the effects of one’s early linguistic environment on cognition. Language acquisition is thought to be key for normal cognitive development in many areas, but only a situation like that found in Nicaragua provides the opportunity to test that hypothesis.

 

Publications

Abner, N., Flaherty, M., Stangl, K.*, Coppola, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. (2019). Nouns and verbs: The Emergence of overt morphological marking in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Language, 95(2), 230-267.

Gleitman, L. Senghas A., Flaherty, M., Coppola, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. (2019) The emergence of the formal category “symmetry” in a new sign language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 116(24), 11705-11711.

Sato, A.*, Schouwstra, M., Flaherty, M., Kirby, S. (2019) Do all aspects of learning benefit from iconicity? Evidence from motion capture. Language and Cognition. Advance online publication. doi:10.1017/langcog.2019.37

Flaherty, M., Stangl, K.*, Goldin-Meadow, S. (2016) Do Lab Attested Biases Predict the Structure of a New Natural Language? In S. Roberts, C. Cuskley, L. Barceló-Coblijn, O. Feher, & T. Verhoef, (Eds.), Proceedings of the Eleventh Evolution of Language Conference. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co.

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014) Language from Gesture?: Emergent Transitivity Marking in Nicaraguan Sign Language. In E. Cartmill, S. Roberts, H. Lyn, & H. Cornish, (Eds.), Proceedings of the Tenth Evolution of Language Conference. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co.

Spaepen, E., Coppola, M., Flaherty, M., Spelke, E., Goldin-Meadow, S. (2013). Generating a lexicon without a language model: Do gestures for number count? Journal of Memory and Language, 69(4), 496-505.

 

Flaherty, M., Senghas, A. (2011). Numerosity and number signs in deaf Nicaraguan adults. Cognition, 121(3), 427-436.

 

Flaherty, M. (2010). Review of Sign Language Acquisition. Journal of Child Language. 37, 956-961.

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010) Does input matter? Homesign in Nicaragua, China, Turkey and the USA. In A.D.M. Smith, M. Schouwstra, B. de Boer, & K. Smith, (Eds.), Proceedings of the Eighth Evolution of Language Conference (pp. 403–404). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co.

 

Hurford, J. R., Flaherty, M., Argyropoulos, G. (2007). Past and future, human and non-human, semantic/procedural and episodic, commentary on Suddendorf and Corballis: The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 324-325.

 

* indicates student author

 

Presentations

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. Efficient from the Beginning: Argument Structural Relations in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Paper to be presented at the 44th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, Boston, USA. November 2019.

Flaherty, M., Sato, A., Kirby, S. Quantifying the Emergence of Structure in Nicaraguan Sign Language with Motion Tracking Technology. Paper presented at the 8th Conference for the International Society for Gesture Studies, Cape Town, South Africa, July 2018.

 

Flaherty, M., Schouwstra, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. Do We See Word Order Patterns from Silent Gesture Studies in a New Natural Language? Paper presented at the 12th Evolution of Language Conference, Torun, Poland, April 2018.

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. The Effects of Gesture Input on the Development of Child Homesign. Poster and highlight talk presented at the Many Paths to Language Workshop, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, October 2017.

 

Flaherty, M. Multivariate approaches to diversity: The present and future of multi-measure, multi-modal, and interdisciplinary work in shaping first language acquisition theory. Invited workshop talk presented at the Many Paths to Language Workshop, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, October 2017.

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. Emergent Marking of Animacy in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Poster presented at the Inaugural Cultural Evolution Society Conference, Jena, Germany. September 2017.

 

Flaherty, M., Hunsicker, D., Goldin-Meadow, S. The Seeds of Nicaraguan Sign Language are not Found in Gesture. Paper presented at the 41st Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, Boston, USA. November 2016.

 

Flaherty, M., Hunsicker, D., Goldin-Meadow, S. Does Input Matter?: The Effects of Gesture Input on the Development of Child Homesign. Paper presented at the 7th Conference for the International Society for Gesture Studies, Paris, France. July 2016.

 

Flaherty, M., Stangl, K., Goldin-Meadow, S. Do Lab Attested Learning Biases Predict the Structure of a New Natural Language? Paper presented at the 11th Evolution of Language Conference, New Orleans, USA. March 2016.

 

Silvey, C., Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S., Kirby, S., Smith, K. Communication Without Prior Learning Inhibits the Emergence of Systematic Structure. Paper presented at the Workshop on Language Adapts to Interaction Workshop at the 11th Evolution of Language Conference, New Orleans, USA. March 2016.

Martin, A., Flaherty, M., Senghas, Al, Pyers, J. The Emergence of Three-Dimensional Signing and Mental Rotation Skill in Deaf Nicaraguan Signers. Plenary talk accepted at International Conference on Sign Language Acquisition (ICSLA). Amsterdam, Netherlands. July 2015.

Flaherty, M. The Birth of a Language: Is Nicaraguan Sign Language a Creole? Plenary talk at the Tenth Creolistics Workshop, Aarhus University, Denmark, April 2015.

Flaherty, M., Senghas, A., Coppola, M. Goldin-Meadow, S. The Emergence of Redundancy in a New Language. Paper presented at the 11th High Desert Linguistics Society Conference, Albuquerque, NM. November 2014.

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S., Senghas, A., Coppola, M., Gleitman, L. Language from Gesture? Emergent Transitivity Marking in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Paper presented at the 10th Evolution of Language Conference, Vienna, Austria. April 2014.

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S., Senghas, A., Coppola, M., Gleitman, L. Animacy and Verb Classes in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Poster presented at the 38th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, Boston, MA. November 2013.

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S., Senghas, A., Coppola, M. Growing a Spatial Grammar: The Emergence of Verb Agreement in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Poster presented at the 11th Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research Conference, London, England. July 2013.

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S., Senghas, A., Coppola, M. Watching Minds Shape Language: The Emergence of Spatial Verb Agreement in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Poster presented at the Budapest Central European University Conference on Cognitive Development, Budapest, Hungary. January 2013.

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S., Özyürek, A. Does Input Matter? Gesture and Homesign in Nicaragua, China, Turkey, and the USA. Paper presented at the Child Language Seminar, London, England. June 2010.

 

Flaherty, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. Does Input Matter? Gesture and Homesign in Nicaragua, China, Turkey, and the USA. Paper presented at the Eighth Evolution of Language Conference, Utrecht, Netherlands. April 2010.

 

Flaherty, M., Senghas, A. Number and Number Signs in Nicaragua. Paper presented at the Alston Hall Child Language Conference, Preston, England. May 2008.

 

Flaherty, M., Kirby, S. Iterated Language Learning in Children. Paper presented at the Seventh Evolution of Language Conference, Barcelona, Spain. March 2008.

 

Flaherty, M., Senghas, A. Numerosity and Number Signs in Deaf Nicaraguan Adults.  Presentation at the 32nd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, Boston, MA. November 2007.