Language, Reading and the Brain


Davide Crepaldi

Amount of frontal teaching: 

14 hours of frontal teaching; 6 hours of Q&A/discussion; ~10 hours of readings and assignments



The course offers an introduction to how the brain deals with language and reading. It does so by focusing on the relationship between sounds/letters and meaning, and the consequent informational landscape that characterises human languages. These questions will bring us outside of the classic territory that is expored in language courses, to touch upon statistical learning, information theory and neural (deep) networks. We will review experimental and computational evidence at the intersection between Linguistics, Cognitive Neuroscience and Experimental Psychology, to discover that language is a peculiar symbolic system, where fundamental randomness is constrained by the learning capability of the brain, and by the dynamics of human social interactions.

A fairly general syllabus is as follows: (i) what's a human language; (ii) arbitrariness and information; (iii) word frequency distribution and computational models of word meaning; (iv) form-to-meaning mapping (morphology and sound symbolism); (v) neural networks and the geometry of language; (vi) statistical and implicit learning; (vii) localist, non-learning neural networks; (viii) language evolution and cognitive constraints.

The course is mandatory for 1st year students in the SISSA Cognitive Neuroscience PhD, and for the SISSA-Trento Master Students who have included this course in their "piano di studi". The course is also part of the teaching offer of the International Master in the Physics of Complex Systems, jointly organized by ICTP, SISSA, Politecnico di Torino, Paris Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris Diderot, Paris-Sud and Ecole Normale Superieure. Anyone willing to take part into the course (including non-curricular students, who are most welcome) should email the teacher here. Students will be evaluated based on their participation during classes and on assignments that will be posted during the course. A final exam may or may not be taken.

Material and announcements for this course will be posted on Slack -- that's why it's important that those interested in taking the course should be in touch with Davide ahead of time. Students in the CNS PhD program, the SISSA-Trento joint Master and the Master in the Physics of Complex Systems will be contacted by the teacher directly (via an invitation into the relevant Slack workspace). But everyone's fallible, and particularly the teacher, so don't be shy and email Davide if you feel anything's off.

In the stubborn hope that COVID won't get in the way of our physical interactions, the course will happen mostly in person, at SISSA; details are in the calendar on the CNS website, and on Slack. If for any reason a student would like to attend, but it won't be able to be physically in Trieste, please email Davide.