Dept Psychology

Barbara C. Malt

College of Arts and Sciences                Department of Psychology                 Cognitive Science                 Malt Department Page  


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lab image My research focuses on thought, language, and relation between the two. I am especially interested in how objects and actions are mentally represented, how speakers of different languages talk about these objects and actions using the tools available in their language, and what influence, if any, the different ways of talking have on non-linguistic representations. I am also interested in applying what we have learned to understanding how children learn the words of their native language and how second-language learners and proficient bilinguals deal with two overlapping yet distinct sets of meanings.

In addressing these questions, I combine evidence from controlled laboratory experimentation with extensive observation of word use in natural settings, and I examine language and thought across members of different cultures who speak different languages. My thinking is informed by theories and findings from linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy, as well as from cognitive and developmental psychology.

Some of the ideas guiding my work are these:  that understanding entities in the world non-linguistically engages different representations and processes than talking about them; that patterns of use of a word in a given language are a function of cultural and linguistic history, not solely conceptual representations of current speakers; that linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge is therefore at least partially independent and so language and thought will not necessarily closely parallel one another; that the beliefs people express about the contents of their concepts and word meanings may not reflect the implicit knowledge they draw on in interacting with and talking about the world; and that only by carefully observing actual word use can we understand how word meanings come about and how linguistic knowledge is used to select words for purposes of communication.