Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


This course provides an introduction to the linguistic study of abnormal language, by which we mean nothing more than any system of language that differs from standard adult language for biological reasons, including lack of maturation, difficulties in learning, brain damage, and genetic variation. We include discussion of first language acquisition, second language acquisition, hemispherectomies, working memory disorders, aphasia, autism, Williams syndrome, Down syndrome, Specific Language Impairment, animal communication, and critical periods. Although scientists have always had an interest in abnormal language, a large, serious literature on this topic has only emerged in the last 5 to 10 years. This course will attempt to review much of this recent literature, attempting to provide a deeper understanding of human language in general. Throughout the cognitive neurosciences, a paradigm for learning about how a system works is to explore the ways in which the system can break down. A careful investigation of abnormal language, therefore, offers an excellent opportunity to learn much about normal language, and human cognition and biology in general. In particular, the study of abnormal language bears on central questions within the cognitive sciences, such as the role of innateness versus learning, the reality of specialized cognitive modules, the universality of linguistic features and operations, the role of competence versus performance, and the reality and basis of critical periods. This field further offers great promise in understanding how language is instantiated in the brain. By correlating brain changes with linguistic differences, we come closer to a biological understanding of the neural substrates of language. For each abnormality, the experimental evidence will be reviewed leading to a linguistic profile. We will emphasize the comparison of linguistic abilities across these syndromes. Linguistic theory will be used both to guide the search, as well as to help organize seemingly disparate data. We will show how these language abnormalities can be better understood in light of current linguistic theory, and hopefully, how linguistic theory can be better informed given the data from such abnormalities. Such research is also important for practical purposes, as a detailed study of these abnormalities is a prerequisite for developing clinical applications, as treatment is possible only once the etiology and symptoms are clearly defined.

Target Audience

This course is aimed at undergraduates in the cognitive sciences, brain sciences, and linguistics. Graduates students are also welcome and may receive graduate credit. Interested students should have at least some background in linguistics (e.g. 24.900, "Introduction to Linguistics"). Those lacking such a background should contact the instructors as soon as possible.


There will be two required readings per class, which should be read before class. The exams will cover material present in the readings that is not discussed in class. All readings are posted in the readings section.

Attendance Policy

This course is unique in that it does not (yet) exist at any other university, nor has a textbook been written that covers all these different areas. As such, we strongly feel that there is no substitute for daily attendance. Therefore, attendance will be worth one letter grade (10%). Students will lose 1% of total class credit for each class missed. Each student, however, will be allowed to miss four classes with no consequences, no excuses needed. A sign-in sheet will be passed around each class in order for us to determine who was present. It is the student's responsibility for signing-in. Of course, any absences due to illness will be excused (simply bring us a note from your doctor) and will not count against the four free absences.


For students on the border between grades, participation will help decide if we round up or down.


Both exams will be open book. The midterm will take place during regular class time five days after session 10 and will cover all material to that point. The final will take place during finals week and will cover material from the entire course. The exams will cover material in the readings and from the lectures. Note that there will be material in the lectures that is not in the readings. Likewise, there will be material in the readings that is not covered in the lectures. Sample exam problems will be given at the end of many lectures.


For Undergraduates

Term Paper 30%
Syntax Pset 5%
Attendance 10%
Midterm 20%
Final 35%


For Graduates

Term Paper 50%
Midterm 20%
Final 30%