Don's Diary

May 15, 1998


I set off on my first trip to the United States and my first international conference, where I will be presenting a poster.

Arriving at Newark airport, I go to immigration control, where I face the question, "So what is the conference about?" I am surprised that my reply - human sentence processing - does not raise an eyebrow. Perhaps the officer thinks it is about the efficient dispatch of felons to prison rather than how we understand and produce language (specifically sentences), the topic of the conference.

Nonetheless, the word "human" in the conference title has been bothering me. Perhaps it is there to avoid any confusion with dolphin sentence processing?

I have some time to get over the jetlag before the conference begins tomorrow. I arrive at the hotel in New Brunswick, where the conference will take place, check in and force myself to stay awake until 9pm.


I have two tasks before conference registration. The first is to buy and send postcards to the laboratory and to my children. My sense of fair play is really upset when I have to pay 50 cents for 30 cents worth of stamps. The second task is a bit more tricky. I have travelled alone and know no one here. I have decided that as soon as I can identify someone who is attending the conference, I will introduce myself. Fortunately, I spot somebody waiting to get in the lift, and the deed is done. At least I have someone to say hello to now.

The conference begins in the afternoon. For a beginner, it is a fascinating pastime putting faces to the names on all those papers that I waded through when preparing my thesis proposal. One of the first talks is about the structure of words, which is my area of research. I make a point of meeting the presenter at the break. I really enjoy the first poster session, where I discuss an experiment on ambiguous Russian sentences and accidentally slip into speaking Russian myself.

I spend the evening in a local bar with a group of assorted psycholinguists, so the contact at the lift proved to be a good one.


It is time for the special session - the highlight of the conference - about the mental lexicon, the supposed store of words that we all carry around with us in our heads. Things get really heavy here. One speaker tries to fit lexical functional grammar into an optimality theory framework - I understand only the ands and buts, and never get to comprehend a whole sentence.

The special session ends with a contribution from the famous philosopher of mind, Jerry Fodor. I am amazed that I find myself agreeing with some of the things he says - when I can understand him, that is. This time the lack of comprehension is not caused by the dense theoretical content, but by his incredibly fast speech rate.

It is the evening poster session and my chance to shine. I find the board with my poster on it - it looks good and worth those many hours I spent learning how to use Powerpoint.

The posters on either side of me are no-shows, so my work is in glorious isolation.

After a quick glimpse at a poster about some experimental work on Hungarian, I take up my position next to my work and the session begins. My pile of handouts disappears at an astonishing rate and I talk people through my work again and again. The poster session is supposed to last for two hours, but I am by my board for nearly three. By the end, I am running to a script like a double-glazing salesperson. But when it is over I feel that I have had some constructive feedback, some nice compliments and only a few glazed looks. All in all I am quite pleased with myself, so my newly-made friends and I go off to celebrate with nachos and lots of lite beer.


It is the last day of the conference. A quick look at the programme reveals that the middle of the day is taken up with three talks about case in German. I decide that I cannot manage this and go off to drink coffee instead. Entering the coffee house, I see that half the delegates share my feelings.

However, the conference does finish on a high for me, with a couple of talks about dynamic systems theory and how this might be applied to language processing (it is good to know that not all difficult concepts are beyond my grasp!).

The conference ends in the afternoon. My head is full of the most unlikely grammatical constructions, like multiple-centre embeddings and object-attached prepositional phrases. Now I am off to New York to see a friend.

I travel to Penn Station with some people from the conference. When we arrive, I introduce them to Katherine, my friend. It turns out that one of my travelling companions knows Katherine's mother. They chat to each other on the phone - in Yiddish. London will seem so mundane after this.

* Billi Randall Postgraduate student in the department of psychology at Birkbeck College, London.

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