Mark Dingemanse 2023 door Jiri Büller
Mark Dingemanse 2023 door Jiri Büller

Vici grant for Mark Dingemanse (CLS) for research on the futures of language

Mark Dingemanse, associate professor of linguistics at the Centre for Language Studies, will receive a Vici research grant from the Netherlands Science Organisation (NWO). With the €1.5 million grant, Dingemanse will set up a new line of research to investigate the relationship between language and technology.

'Language is probably humanity’s most flexible technology,’ says Dingemanse. Besides artisanal (human) language, artificial language tools have increasingly become part of everyday life in recent years: from speech assistants to ChatGTP. Over the next five years, Dingemanse will grow an international research team to study the various ways in which language and technology converge. 

Language as technology

'Language provides the tools we use to talk, think, build social relationships and get things done in the world,' says Dingemanse. A first strand of his project therefore focuses specifically on human language as technology. By studying social interaction in different languages, he hopes to chart the possible future(s) of human language. Dingemanse: "We start from the global linguistic diversity that represents humanity’s many parallel presents and futures. The idea is that if you compare languages around the world, you can see the possibility space for artisanal interactive technologies.’ 

Artificial Intelligence

The second strand of the project focuses on “language technology”: voice-driven assistants like Alexa and chatbots like ChatGPT. Such tools are usually not developed by linguists, but they do encode certain ideas about language.

One such idea is that language primarily about text and information instead of about interaction and relationships. 'Tools like Alexa can process our voice and execute simple commands, but they still feel quite clunky and are miles away from how we as humans use language among ourselves. Moreover, technology often caters only to a small number of languages, rather than the bigger picture studied in part one of this project.' According to Dingemanse, linguistics can make important contributions here, by investigating what kind of ideas about language are encoded in our language technology and thus gain an understanding of what might be possible, now and in the future.

Language about technology

The third strand of the project will investigate our language about technology: how we talk about technology affects how we think about it. 'When we speak about tools in human terms ('I'll just ask ChatGPT', ''ChatGPT misunderstood but at least it apologized') it becomes easier to attribute other human traits to it, such as responsibility, understanding, ethical awareness,' says Dingemanse. 'It is up to language scientists to untangle that and study it very precisely, and then help the general public get a better understanding of the capabilities and limitations of language technology.'

Vici grant

Vici is aimed at senior researchers who have demonstrated their ability to successfully develop their own innovative line of research. The grant will enable Dingemanse to hire postdocs and PhD candidates in the fields of linguistics, conversation analysis, and human-computer interaction over the next five years. It will also invest in computer power and software engineers to train speech recognition models and develop new software.

Last year, Alicia Montoya and Mirjam Broersma from the Faculty of Arts also received Vici scholarships. As faculty, we are proud of these achievements and warmly congratulate the laureates.

Photo by Jiri Büller