Specialization in Experimental Linguistics

Specialization in Experimental Linguistics 2016-08-04T10:54:41+00:00

A central agenda for the scientific study of language is the effort to understand

  • how language is represented in the mind/brain as a system of knowledge that all human beings hold in common;
  • how it is subject to developmental growth throughout childhood; and
  • how its deployment as a computational ability in real time language use relies on and is constrained by other cognitive systems.

Pursuing these questions requires a blend of quantitative experimental and computational approaches, combined with theoretical interest and expertise.

The experimental linguistics track within the Linguistics PhD is dedicated to the formation of scientists who are equally at home in these areas. They can creatively combine traditional linguistic, experimental and computational approaches to the study of language and its interfaces with other systems of the mind and so play a truly integrative role within cognitive science.


The entire linguistics faculty as well as a number of faculty in sister departments are involved in advising and directing research within the experimental linguistics track. Questions about the program should be directed to Martin Hackl or to any of the following Linguistics faculty members:

For a list of relevant faculty in other departments, see Language-related research in other MIT departments on the Linguistics faculty page.


The curriculum of the experimental linguistics track has two goals. First, students need to acquire a solid foundation in experimental and computational approaches to the study of language and its interfaces. To this end, they should master a body of relevant research results and hypotheses in cognitive science, and acquire comprehensive knowledge of relevant experimental techniques and state of the art methods of data analysis.

Second, the curriculum offers students the opportunity to engage in depth with experimental and/or computational research connected to one of the core areas of linguistics. Courses supporting this engagement should be graduate level (typically research seminars) but can be chosen from a large set of courses offered within the department or by sister departments at MIT (BCSCSAIL) or Harvard Linguistics and Psychology.

The courses chosen by a student pursuing a specialization in Experimental Linguistics should be organized (in consultation with relevant faculty) around a coherent and recognizable theme such as experimental syntax, experimental semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, computational linguistics, language processing, etc.


Besides the requirements of the standard four-year linguistics program, students in the experimental linguistics track should complete five additional courses. The additional five courses are:

  • Quantitative Methods requirement: A two semester graduate level course sequence in statistics and experimental design such as Harvard Psy_1950 + Psy_1952.
  • Additional subjects: Three graduate level courses in diverse areas of experimental or computational research on language and its interfaces. The list of possible courses is vast, and relevant course offerings vary across years. A sample of the possibilities includes: Systems Neuroscience (9.011J); Cognitive Science (9.012);); Natural Language and the Computer representation of Knowledge (9.611J); Computational Cognitive Science (9.660); Functional MRI Investigations of the Human Brain (9.71); Special Subject in Brain and Cognitive Sciences (9.S911); Speech Communication (6.541J); Machine Learning (6.867); Topics in Experimental Phonology (24.967). One of these courses may be an independent study or independent laboratory research course.Students who complete both Language Acquisition I (24.949) and Topics in Computational Phonology (24.981) may use one of these subjects to fulfill the Common Curriculum requirement in first-language acquisition and count the other as part of the Experimental Linguistics specialization.

The required sequence in quantitative methods (statistics and experimental design) will provide a foundation in experimental and other quantitative methods typical of cognitive psychology and/or computer science. Students may be excused from this requirement if they have completed it elsewhere, and will then substitute two other courses for the quantitative methods requirement.

The timing of these courses will vary from student to student. Because of the tight scheduling of the first-year curriculum in linguistics, most students profit most from beginning their experimental linguistics work in their second year of studies (typically with the first of the two quantitative methods courses).

In addition, students in this track will participate in current experimental and computational research projects and attend lab meetings (such as Experimental Syntax and Semantics lab) as well as discussion groups such as Phonology CircleSyntax-Semantics Reading Group, and Syntax Square, depending on interests.