Asifa Majid

LAUREATE Humanities 2015

Asifa Majid

Asifa Majid (1974) studied psychology in Glasgow and language and cognitive science in Edinburgh. After receiving her PhD in Glasgow, she was a visiting researcher in France, Canada, Germany, Sweden and the United States. She is now Professor of Language, Communication and Cultural Cognition at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. In addition to an Ammodo KNAW Award she has also received a NWO Vici grant. She has been a member of The Academy of Europe since 2013 .

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RESEARCH FOCUS

Asifa Majid explores the deeper relationships between our brains and our language and culture.

A round the world journey through the relationship between brains, language and culture

How do people from different cultures capture subtle concepts into words? How entangled are our linguistic and cultural roots and how do they affect each other?

Majid’s scientific discoveries embrace not only the field of linguistics, but also those of psychology, cognitive science and ethnography. And involves the study of cultures in distant parts of the world.

It was long thought that everybody had difficulty describing odours. Western subjects invariably make many mistakes in odour testing; only describing scents by comparison. It was as if instead of saying a tree is ‘green’, they were saying it ‘looks like grass’ suggesting that in our brains, few connections exist between smell and language. Asifa Majid’s fieldwork challenges such dogmas. She discovered nomadic peoples in Asian rainforests who have a rich scent vocabulary. It maybe, therefore, that people in Western cultures simply stopped talking to children about scent.

Majid also researched words for other sensory stimuli – colours, shapes, sounds, textures. Dutch people distinguish ‘high’ sounds from ‘low’; Iranians and Turks between ‘thin’ and ‘fat’. Her observations teach us about the intense interaction between our brains, our language and our culture.

Majid: “Where do our thoughts come from? Is our understanding of colour, sound and space ingrained from birth? Or do children learn such things from the language and culture around them? And how does that understanding develop during their early years? These are things that fascinate me. Thanks to the Ammodo KNAW Award I set up a new experimental study, as well as expanding other research considerably. We want to know how the meaning of concepts differ around the world. To answer such questions, we apply new linguistic computer programmes to a database of concepts from more than sixty languages. We also want to know how concepts change in one individual over the years. Therefore we are following two groups of young Dutch children, one with Dutch as their native language and the other with Turkish as their mother tongue. Do these children talk about ‘high’ and ‘low’ or ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ tones? Does that change, and if so, when? Such studies help us understand how human language and mind varies and changes.”