Seminar: Context Dependence in Language and Communication

Brief description

Exploring the role of context in language learning and language understanding using methods and results from cognitive psychology, language acquisition, and linguistics. Topics include discourse coherence and anaphora, conversational implicature, word learning, on-line sentence comprehension, and the influence of sociolinguistic variables. May be repeated for credit. 3 units.


All course-related email should be sent to .

Attendance and in-class participation in discussions (20%)

We would like everyone to ask questions, offer ideas, etc., in class. Questions and ideas sent via email also count as participation, though we would prefer it if everyone got involved during our class meetings.

Weekly questions about the reading (20%)

Each week, there will be 3-5 papers. We have worked hard to make sure that the amount of reading is manageable, so that you can devote serious attention to each piece.

In order to stimulate in class dicussion, we are asking that you turn in a homework-style question about each one of the papers. That is, we are not asking for speculative, open-ended questions related to the papers, but rather focussed, answerable questions that a careful reader of the paper would be able to answer more or less straightforwardly. Really valuable questions are ones that probe multiple aspects of the work, so that answering them increases understanding of the paper as a whole.

Formulating questions like this is an invaluable skill for teachers, and it also helps ensure a comprehensive understanding of the ideas under discussion.

These questions are due by 23:59:59 on every Sunday that immediately precedes a class meeting, except for the first day, when we will provide the questions (partly as illustrative examples).

The questions should be sent to the course address: .

Final project

Final projects are to be pursued in teams of 1-3 students. The goal is to motivate and describe an original set of experiments relevant to conversational implicature and related concepts. It is not necessary to run these experiments for the final submission, though any pilot data you can collect will strengthen the report.

The project itself is broken down into the following pieces.

Literature review (15%; first report due April 30; full report due May 14, 2:15 pm)

A six-page single-spaced paper summarizing and synthesizing seven papers in the area of your final project. The ideal is to have the same topic for your lit review and final project, but it's possible that you'll discover in the lit review that you hate the topic, so you can switch topics (or groups) for the final project; your lit review will be graded on its own terms. Tips on major things to include:

  1. General problem/task definition: What are these papers trying to solve? Why?
  2. Concise summaries of the articles: Do not simply copy the article text in full. We can read them ourselves. Put in your own words the major contributions of each article.
  3. Compare and contrast: Point out the similarities and differences of the papers. Do they agree with each other? Are results seemingly in conflict? If the papers address different subtasks, how are they related? (If they are not related, then you may have made poor choices for a lit review...). This section is probably the most valuable for the final project.
  4. Future work: Make several suggestions for how the work can be extended. Are there open questions to answer? This would presumably include how the papers relate to your final project idea.

Project milestone (15%; due May 21, 2:15 pm)

A short overview of your project including at least the following information:

  1. A statement of the project's goals.
  2. A summary of previous approaches (drawing on the lit review).
  3. A summary of the current approach.
  4. A summary of progress so far: what you have been done, what you still need to do, and any obstacles or concerns that might prevent your project from coming to fruition.

In-class presentations (5%; June 4)

We will have in-class project presentations on June 4. These will be a chance to organize your ideas and get feedback from the group in advance of submitting the final report.

Final project submission (25%; due June 13, 11:59:59 pm)

Final projects should be six pages long and meet the formatting requirements for the Cognitive Science Society's Annual Meeting. We hope also that the papers would be suitable submissions to that conference once the experiments they describe were run.

Policy on late work

Each student will have a total of 4 free late (calendar) days applicable to any assignment (including the lit review and project milestone) except the final project paper. These can be used at any time, no questions asked. Each 24 hours or part thereof that a homework is late uses up one full late day. Once these late days are exhausted, any homework turned in late will be penalized 20% per late day. Late days are not applicable to final projects. If a group's assignment is late n days, then each group member is charged n late days.

Academic honesty

Please familiarize yourself with Stanford's honor code

We will adhere to it and follow through on its penalty guidelines.

Students with documented disabilities

Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability must initiate the request with the Student Disability Resource Center (SDRC) located within the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). SDRC staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, and prepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is being made. Students should contact the SDRC as soon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations. The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (phone: 723-1066).